NEHS Spotlight Series
To make a claim for the oldest houses in New England inevitably invites controversy. The region has plenty of very old houses, but few of them survive intact. Some took several years to build. How does one date them, then: From the start of construction, or completion?
Some very old houses have been remodeled over the years. One in Rhode Island burned down during King Philip’s War, while a wealthy pop star restored and modernized another. One is the oldest stone house, and one is the oldest timber frame house.
The New England Historical Society has surveyed the field of oldest houses, and we’ve come up with six that have valid claims as the oldest in each state. We realize some may beg to differ….
Henry Whitfield House
People claim the Henry Whitfield House in Guilford as the oldest house in Connecticut and the oldest stone house in New England. You can find it at 248 Old Whitfield Street, down the street from the town green.
Puritans built it in 1639 for their minister, Henry Whitfield, a descendant of Geoffrey Chaucer.
The first settlers of Guilford began building the home in September 1639, shortly after they arrived. But they started too late in the year, and they only finished the great hall and north fireplace. They completed the house in the summer of 1640 with the help of the Menunkatuck Indians, who carried stone from nearby quarries on barrows.
The walls measure nearly two feet thick, held together with mortar made of yellow clay and crushed oyster shells.
Henry Whitfield, his wife Dorothy Shaeffe Whitfield and their nine children lived in the house. The Puritans also used it for religious services before they built their church, as a fort and as a meetinghouse for Town Meeting.
In 1660, Roman Catholics used the house as a chapel.
The owner remodeled the house in 1868, and it opened to the public in 1899 as Connecticut’s first museum. It was restored in 1902-04 and in the 1930s.
Today the Henry Whitfield House is a museum. For more information about visiting, click here.
John Bray House
The John Bray House in Kittery qualifies as one of the oldest in Maine because it was built on the site where wealthy shipwright John Bray first built a dwelling in 1662. He also kept a home in England.
The current house, a 2-1/2 story wooden frame building, was probably not built before 1720. Parts of the original house were incorporated into it. It’s set on the south side of Pepperell Road (Maine State Route 103), on a site overlooking the Piscataqua River.
Daryl Hall of the pop duo Hall & Oates bought the house in 2008 and restored it, saving it from destruction. He later sold it for $1.6 million.
Hall saw an ad in the Newtown, Conn., Antiques and Arts Weekly, that said the house was up for auction. He sent his architect to look at it. Then he sent his assistant to buy it. After 15 minutes of bidding, he owned it.
Hall restores antique houses as a hobby. He restored houses in London and Upstate New York.
The Fairbanks House
The Fairbanks House in Dedham, Mass., is said to be the oldest timber-framed house in North America. Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks, Puritans from Yorkshire, England, had the house built for themselves and their six children. Tree ring dating confirms the Fairbanks built the house in the late 1630s and early 1640s. English carpenters from East Anglia built the house, which never had a mortgage on it.
The house passed down to the Fairbanks family through eight generations, and the Fairbanks family still owns the property. One of Jonathan and Grace’s descendants, Charles Warren Fairbanks, served as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president and had a city in Alaska (Fairbanks) named after him. Another Fairbanks, Jason, was hanged for murder in 1801.
The Fairbanks family frequently holds reunions in which they dress in Puritan costume.
Yale professor Abbott Lowell Cummings wrote “No other house of the mid-17th century in New England has survived in such unbelievable unspoiled condition.”
The Fairbanks House, now a historic house museum, opens May through October. For more information click here.
Richard Jackson House
The Richard Jackson House, New Hampshire’s oldest, sits across the Piscataqua River from the oldest house in Maine. Located at 76 Northwest St. in Portsmouth, Richard Jackson built it in 1664 in the English style, but Americanized with an extravagant use of wood.
Richard Jackson, a mariner, farmer and cooper, outlived his two sons, dying in 1718. The house was divided in 1727 among his daughter-in-law and her children. Five generations of men named Nathaniel Jackson owned and occupied the house from 1727 to 1897.
The fifth Nathaniel Jackson bequeathed the house to his daughter, Mary E. Jackson and her son, also named Nathaniel. They rented the house to an African-American couple, Clarence and Belle Tilley. She was believed to have come to New Hampshire via the Underground Railroad. The house in 1924 was sold to William Sumner Appleton, founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). He allowed Belle to continue living there.
He restored the property, removing modern modification and replacing the windows with leaded diamond paned windows typical of the era. Appleton’s restoration became the basis for Historic New England’s preservation philosophy of keeping generations of changes intact.
The public may now visit the house, a museum. For information about visiting, click here.
Stephen Northup House
In 1645, Stephen Northup came from England at about the age of 15, and in 1660 he started building the house now at 99 Featherbed Lane in North Kingstown, R.I.
He first lived in Providence, where he served as town sergeant in 1660. Five years earlier Providence Town Meeting granted him 25 acres. Since he sold land in Providence in 1662, he probably finished the North Kingstown house that year and moved into it.
Most of the original house probably burned in King Philip’s War (1675-76), along with everything south of Providence. Northup then rebuilt the house, possibly with parts from the 1660 building. Additions were made around 1712 and 1850.
The southwestern portion of the home is original to the 1660 building standards with additions made around 1712 and 1850. The present home may have portions of its current form rooted in the year 1660.
Northup married, had six known children and lived until at least 1687. He built the first dam at the Gilbert Stuart home, according to a family researcher. The Northups owned or operated the gristmill there.
Stephen Northup’s great-grandson, Capt. Henry Northup, who freed his slave Mintus in 1797. Mintus took Northup as his last name, and had a freeborn son, Solomon Northup, the subject of the Academy Award winning film 12 Years a Slave.
Stephen Northup also has a descendant in Stephen Douglas, who famously debated Abraham Lincoln and lost to him in the 1860 election for U.S. president.
The Northup House now belongs to a private owner.
The oldest house in Vermont – or at least the oldest continuously occupied house — is believed to be the enigmatic Mooar-Wright House in Pownal, the far southwestern town in the state. No documentation exists of its early ownership. According to local legend, the house was built as a tavern by Charles Wright in 1762. Others speculate Dutch settlers built the house thinking it belonged to the New York colony.
People sometimes call the house the Defoe-Mooar-Wright House. Some historians believe John Defoe, a Loyalist imprisoned in 1776, built it. He escaped and fought on the side of the British at the Battle of Bennington. Patriots captured him again, but he escaped again to Canada. Other historians believe Charles Wright built the house in 1765.
The house has a Dutch frame around a typically English layout. In 2009, the Rev. Gregory Dickson bought the house intending to renovate it, according to the Bennington Banner. Its previous owner, Margaret Lillie, used part of the house as a law office. Both belong to the Pownal Historical Society.
Members of the Mooar family are the last owners anyone in Pownal can remember. They visited the home in the summer during the 1950s.
Photos: Henry Whitfield House By Dmadeo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6013719; Stephen Northrup House By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20434112. Bray House By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37099250. This story about New England’s oldest houses was updated in 2022.