260 Years, One Family – The Fairbanks House

Built in 1637 – or thereabouts – just footsteps away from an Indian Trail that became the Boston Post Road and later was named East Street, Fairbanks House is one of the most important historical attractions in Dedham, Massachusetts. The property is significant not only because it is the oldest surviving wood frame house in North America, but because of its remarkable state of preservation.

Abbott Lowell Cummings, the former Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale University and author of The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1626-1725, is unequivocal: “It may be said quite simply that no other house of the mid-seventeenth century in New England has survived in such unbelievably unspoiled condition. It is extraordinary that so early a structure should preserve such a high percentage of original features.”

The earliest section of the house is a great hall and parlor with a central chimney. A full second floor was built above with attic and storage space beyond. This was a pretty impressive structure for this period, indicating that Jonathan Fairbanks was what we might call comfortable – neither rich nor poor. The staircase in this section curves up to a pair of bedchambers. This is believed to be a replacement stairway, because visible evidence of an earlier one survives.

Three fireplaces were constructed in the original house. There was one in the hall, one in the parlor, and another in the second floor chamber. According to Curator/Director Jan Eakins, the technology of installing one on the second floor wasn’t easy, but the Fairbanks family clearly cared about comfort, and this chamber very well could have held the best bed, though no inventory supports this theory. It is fortunate that Jonathan Fairbanks’ 1668 inventory, as well as his eldest son John’s 1684 inventory, both survive. The next important inventory is that of Ebenezer Fairbanks in 1833. He and his father, also called Ebenezer, probably made most of the later additions to the house.

Early and Late Additions

It is clear that by 1668, there was already an addition to the Fairbanks House, probably to the west end of the original dwelling. And by 1700 a lean-to was added at the back of the house. Unlike later homes, this section was not integral to the structure.

“It was common to move the kitchen out to the lean-to,” commented Ms. Eakins. “We don’t have that here because the hall is incredibly intact and was used for cooking the whole time.”
The last descendent lived in the house until 1904 and used a Monarch wood-burning range in the same space.

Just after the Revolution, the two Ebenezer Fairbanks came along and decided that the house should be renovated. They moved the parlor to a new wing and installed a visitor’s entrance there. They also tore down the west wing that had been added in 1668, and rebuilt it.
Inside the museum is a detailed model of the house showing the frame of the dwelling as it changed and grew, which helps the visitor to understand the transformations over the years.

Distinctive Features Preserved

One of the extraordinary things about Fairbanks House is that, despite the additions, so many features of the original house have survived.

The Hearth

First of all, the family never moved its cooking facilities from the hall, so the hearth is astonishingly intact and the chimney is quite original. Seventeenth-century paneling in this room survives as well as a seventeenth century dresser. The latter is a series of shelves similar to the upper portion of a Welsh Dresser.

I can only assume that the dresser was used for storage, and thus survived,” said Eakins. “It’s interesting that through the hall, we can trace many of the changes in the technology of cooking over the years – and we actively interpret these.”

Scholars marvel at the survival of the lintel over the cooking hearth. A sign featuring two overlapping ‘V’ shapes remains on the lintel, which was intended to protect against witchcraft. It’s the only known example to survive in New England, but the staff would be thrilled to learn of any others.

Paint

Some of the earliest surviving paint in New England remains in the parlor: It dates from about 1690-1700. The paneling was covered with whitewash and huge donut-shaped decorations were painted over it. Paint was not something that was homemade in this period, but was a commercial product. There is evidence that this decoration was on the ceiling and at least two walls. One could assume that all four walls were decorated this way.

A door leading out to the lean-to from the parlor is painted as well. The paint on this particular door is a challenge. The decoration is flaking off because the whitewash beneath is unstable. Ms. Eakins has been working with Building Conservation Associates of Dedham to help determine the best way to preserve the surface.

Wattle and Daub

On one end of the second floor of the first period house is a wattle and daub wall between the posts. Gravity unfortunately is pulling it down and it is cracking. Many architectural scholars are stunned that it still remains untouched. It is such a rare survivor that it’s difficult to find conservationists who know how to conserve it.

“We plan to be very cautious about how we handle it,” Eakins said. “Most of the wattle and daub is still behind the paneling.”

Siding

Abbott Lowell Cummings has been examining the house since at least the 1960s. His study revealed the original siding on the house, some of it quite visible, especially on the second floor of the lean-to. There is beaded siding on the south-facing exterior; and lapped cedar clapboard appears on the north side and the east side. Each surface has slightly different materials and on the west side the builders used red oak. This surface was slightly less expensive and was used on the least visible side. All of the siding is fixed by hand-forged nails. This information has been verified by a historic structure report done in 2000.

Challenges in Preservation

One of the serious challenges in preservation of this structure is the increasingly heavy traffic close to the house. Vibrations from truck traffic are a particular problem.
“Obviously, the community has grown up around us,” said Eakins. “I know for a fact that there is movement in the house, because I see things in the collection that are adjusting as they vibrate.”

She is also disturbed that the wattle and daub is slowly disintegrating.

The staff are worried that vibration is also affecting the stone foundation.

“Vibration can only have a negative effect on any early building.” Eakins said. “Here at Fairbanks House, I’m the first preservation professional that has ever taken care of the house.”
An important part of her job involves bringing in experts to develop a conservation plan. She is taking the organization into a new level of technology and plans to apply for a Save America’s Treasures Grant. Only National Historic Landmarks are eligible for this grant and matching funds must be raised in order to comply. Excellent progress has already been made in finding these funds.

Not Frozen in Time

“It’s a miracle that this house has survived,” said Eakins. “It wouldn’t be here if generations of Fairbanks hadn’t preserved it.”

Indeed, the continuous occupancy of the house by one family for nearly three centuries is yet another remarkable feature of the Fairbanks House.

“You know, our site is not frozen in time,” Eakins said. “We are a museum, and the last descendent in 1904 was living with things from the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s.”
The house has the flavor of a dwelling lived in until 1904, and isn’t arranged with period rooms. It’s fun; it’s dynamic; and you learn a lot from the house just by seeing it. If time permitted, it would be easy to take a four-hour tour.

“Our interpretation looks at the additions to the house over time,” she continued. “We have a very rich point of view that scrutinizes the children, the men, the women, and what kind of work each performed.”

“I came to Dedham because I knew the house was important,” Eakins said, “and I’ve been here now for two full seasons. I have to say now that this house is even more wonderful than I originally thought.”

Fairbanks House, 511 East Street, Dedham, Massachusetts 02026, (781) 326-1170, www.fairbankshouse.org

Written By: Helen H. Hill
Source: New England Antiques Journal