The Fairbanks House located in Dedham, Massachusetts is the oldest wood structure in America. In fact, it is recognized as the oldest known wooden structure in North America.
The Fairbanks House is listed as the oldest frame house in America by the U.S. National Park Service. The New England Museum Association describes it as the oldest timber frame house in North America. The Historic New England Project recognizes it as the oldest known wood structure in North America.
The Fairbanks House is also considered the 4th oldest building in America. The other 3 older buildings are in New Mexico (Taos Pueblo est. 1000 AD – 1450 AD, the Acoma Pueblo est. 1000 AD -1200 AD and the Palace of Governors est. 1610).
In 1633 the Fairbanks family came to America from Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Prior to moving into the house built for Jonathan, Grace and their six children, the family lived for several years in Watertown, Massachusetts. It is important to note that Jonathan did not build the house himself. Instead, he hired a master carpenter and a master mason, people who knew what they were doing, to build the house for him. This is a large part of why the house still stands today.
Dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, on the house's hall summer beam shows that the tree from which it was cut was felled in 1637. The summer beam, as the main structural support for an entire half of the house, was by necessity one of the first parts of the house that would have been erected. Dendrochronology on a smaller support post dated it to 1641. They did not age wood before using it back then; they built with green wood. With this information we know the house was built between 1637 and 1641, with parts of the house most likely livable within the first year.
Eight generations of Fairbanks lived in the house; all of them left their mark in one way or another. Additions have more than doubled the size of the original house, adding two full wings, a workshop, and several small expansions. When the family was fairly wealthy, luxuries like wallpaper, paint, and larger windows were added to the house. However, around 1800 – 1820 times changed and the money disappeared. No significant changes were made to the house after this time period. The house has never had modern conveniences like heat, running water, or electricity.
Abbott Lowell Cummings, former Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale University, said that the Fairbanks House “is one of the most important historic houses now standing in the northeastern part of the United States. Its value to the area and to the nation as a whole lies not so much in its claim to being the oldest house in New England but in its architectural significance. It may be said quite simply that no other house of the mid-17th century in New England has survived in such unbelievable unspoiled condition. It is 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.”
The Fairbanks House became a museum in 1904 is and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. This oldest surviving timber frame house, and wooden structure, in North America is open to the public for tours from May through October.
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