Newport Historical Society
A Guide to Discovering the History of Your House
Uncover the history of your house by investigating its architecture and its people. This guide will get you started, serving as an overview of the process and providing a general checklist for the steps you will need to take.
by Mary Lou McGuire
Architectural History: What to look for
When investigating the architectural history of a house, pay attention to the land and outbuildings as well as the main structure. Get to know the different architectural eras, look for technological advancements in building materials, inspect the different parts of your structure, and stand back to take an overall look at the relationship of the land to the structures upon it. When inspecting the interior of your house, you need to look for types of materials, construction techniques and the finishes that were used. Remember that the interior of a house is renovated and updated more frequently than the exterior. In many cases only evidence of earlier construction techniques will be found.
A. Survey the site
1. Are there outbuildings? Outbuildings served many purposes, such as a dairy, pig sty or outhouse. Outbuildings can provide clues to the occupation of the previous owners.
2. Look for: abandoned foundations or pathways; trash dumps; water sources; stone walls; plantings; man-made ridges or hollows.
B. Survey the exterior of your house
1. Asymmetry: - Was your house built in sections, prevalent from the 1790’s-1820’s? -Was your house built prior to 1889, when the US standard for a ‘foot’ was established? - Asymmetry was in vogue from 1880-1900
2. Foundations: - Different construction styles and materials or lines of demarcation indicate that your house was constructed in phases. - Do you have a full basement or are there footings?
3. Chimneys: - How many are there? How are they constructed? Where are they located?
4. Roof: - What is the roof style: gable, hip, gambrel, mansard, shed, a mixture? - Of what material is it made? This will give you a clue, but remember that roofing materials are frequently replaced. - What is its pitch? Are there edge details, such as decorative face boards?
5. Walls:- With what material is it sided? If wood, is it clapboard, shingle, board & batten?
6. Doors: - Where are the doors placed? Are there transoms?- Does the style of the door seem to match the frame? Remember that an easy way to update a house is to change the door. - How are the doors constructed? Plank? Panel? Wide? Narrow?
7. Windows: - Placement: Are they wide apart, indicating the use of shutters? Is there any shutter hardware? Are they grouped in twos or threes, or single? The grouping of windows occurred mostly after 1850. In early homes windows were often irregularly placed. - What style is the sash? Casements swing out; if only the bottom moves it is single-hung, the top and bottom move in a double-hung window. - Are there dormers? - Are the windows of a particular style?
- Palladian: three adjacent windows, center has a fanlight
- Eyebrow: under the eave, early 19th century
- Bay window: in vogue around 1840
- Paired windows: Italianate style (1850-1890)
- Window trim: Does it match the door trim? Is it the same on all sides of the house? - Window panes: - How many panes are in each window? Does the number differ from window to window? Do you have twelve over twelve; six over six; two over two; one over one? In general, the smaller and more numerous, the older the window. - What do the panes look like? Is there a bump in the middle, ripples or bubbles? These indicate age and manufacturing method. What is their color? Do you have stained glass windows?
8. How many stories are there? - Pre-Revolution: generally one and one-half stories for the common person; two full stories for the wealthy. - Post-Revolution: two and one-half stories were common.
9. Are there wings or ells? - Do the windows match? Is the siding the same? How are the doors positioned? Could a back door once have been the front door?
C. Survey the interior of your house
1. Take note of the following features inside your home:
- Floors: type of wood, wide or narrow, painted, stenciled, linoleum, etc.
- Walls: plaster? Wallboard? Wood? Any evidence of old paint or wallpaper?
- Ceilings: are they tin, plaster, dry wall, acoustical tile? Any exposed beams?
- Trim: look for wainscoting, crown molding, baseboards, chair/picture rails.
- Doors: Do you have pocket doors, French doors, solid/hollow/paneled wood?
- Hardware: notice the hardware on doors, windows, cabinets, floor registers, hooks, shelf brackets, etc.
- Fireplaces: check out the number, placement, and location as well as the design of mantels and inserts.
- Stairs: take note of newel posts, balusters, handrails, tread bracket designs.
- Cabinetry: built-in or free standing?
2. What mechanical systems are present or evident? - Heating: Wood, coal, oil, propane, electric, solar? Are there radiators, or evidence of radiators? Hot air ducts? Franklin stoves? - Plumbing: lead or copper pipes, sink/bathtub/toilet design, evidence of an attic storage tank. - Electrical: circuit breakers, fuse boxes, conduits, junction boxes, wiring. - Lighting fixtures: wall sconces, gas lights, ceiling fixtures, lamp shades. Continued on Page 2: People History
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