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  • Lorraine Arnold, M.A.

Exploring the History of Your Historic Home

In 1970 a home was purchased on a one-acre lot in Matawan, Monmouth County. The undated English Colonial Revival style cross-hipped house was clad with flush horizontal pine plank sheathing typical of the second half of the eighteenth century, covered in stucco which had been adhered to ribbed metal lath. Two-over-two weighted windows and 5-panel pine doors with black iron locking mechanisms were found throughout the house. However, the structure was in gross disrepair having been neglected for a number of years. The new owners planned on fixing it up and reselling it and in that first year they added a single-story family room to the northwest rear of the home. Unaware of its history they then did what many did in the 1970s, they covered the exterior in wide-planked aluminum siding. Fourteen years later, in 1983, the house was listed for sale.


By the time of the sale a year later, the interior was replete with DIY construction projects, low-cost paneling covering the dining room plaster walls, the stairway walls were clad with under-coarse split wood shingles, thin hollow walls added in unusual places, and wood flooring covered over with orange shag rugs. Nevertheless, the energetic young new owners suspected that the house was built long before the build date listed as 1970 in the real estate listing. The structure had a spirit of having been around quite a long time with a history waiting to be discovered, and though the new owners’ desire was to recover its original style, it would soon be revealed that decades separated several phases of construction.


Figure 1: Southeast Corner, First Phase
Material Inspection

Inspection of the foundation provided clues regarding the various phases, and being a buildings’ archaeologist, there is a natural draw to exploring below ground level which grants a view into how the building may have developed over time. The first phase was constructed on a four-foot high semblance of English rowlock brick set on sandy loam soil (Fig. 1). Built on sills of 8×12 inch thick hewn timber, the structural system was a pine braced frame with a combination of hand hewn and pit-sawn posts with ground level walls infilled with locally fired brick. (Fig. 2 & 3).


Figure 2: Northeast Wall, First Phase
Figure 3: Interior Wall and Cellar, First Phase

The 19×22 foot second phase addition of 1914 created a cross-hipped roofline. This added a front room and dining room on the ground floor, with a front stair leading to an additional bedroom, as well as extending the original two existing bedrooms on the upper floor. Built on sandy loam soil, the 27-inch high foundation of this phase consisted of uncut irregular course stone, topped with a solid 41-inch high solid brick wall with an English style variant of alternating rows of five stretcher rows per header row. The dirt floor foundation was later cemented causing damp to rise into the stone resulting in mold and mushrooms to bloom in the mortar joints. Evidence of irrelevant mortises in the sills indicated that they were reused, potentially from a demolished outbuilding (Fig. 4). During this phase the roof was replaced but retained its steep roofline. The altered rafter trussing included a modified queen post system with common rafters and purlins. Originally clad with under-coarse split wood shingles, it was later replaced with plywood and covered with asphalt shingles during re-roofing in the late twentieth century. Structural evidence in the attic revealed the disjointed original front plate married to a new beam added in 1914 during the second phase addition. The front plate, left to protrude down into the bedrooms, settlement patterns throughout the house, and changes of flooring direction on the ground and upper floors confirmed the separate build phases.








Figure 4: Northeast Sill, Phase 2

Document Research

Having determined that the structure was built in phases (Fig. 5), and clearly long before the 1970 build date noted in the 1984 real estate listing, the deed line was searched reaching back to the earliest post-Revolutionary War record. This assisted in the development of the landscape of the building’s location along with survey drawings constructed from the deed directions as the property evolved through conveyances. The earliest document used showed the transfer of a total of 141 acres to John Stoutenburgh/Stoutenborough, 131 acres from Anne Bingham, a widow, through representative William Cooper in 1793, and 11 acres from Jonathan Forman in 1794. When Stoutenburgh sold the property in 1818, the deed indicated that the parcel of land was known to be where “John Stoutenburgh formerly lived but is now under the tenure and occupation of the said Gideon Crawford.” The property which spanned two counties was subdivided in 1854, reducing the property to just over 16 acres. Though it had changed hands four times after Crawford owned the property, it continued to be known as the “Gideon S. Crawford” farm and it is suspected that subsequent owners used the acreage for farming but didn’t occupy the dwelling. While the extent of the details of the search are beyond the scope of this article, investigation of materials and documents suggest that the original house was built between 1794 and 1817. Additional means of research, such as dendrochronology and further forensic property investigation including an indepth study of neighboring properties would more than likely provide clarity.


Advantages of Building Research

While the 1984 new owners understood that previous alterations throughout the building’s past voided its eligibility for designation, researching its history and understanding the evolution of its fabric, form, and function gave the owners multiple advantages including what era to focus their attention on for restoration. From the study, there was a clear understanding that most of the building’s fabric and function were far removed from the original structure. The main room on the ground floor, once used for both kitchen and social purposes, was repurposed in 1914 to serve as a standalone kitchen, removing social gatherings to the dining and front rooms. During this phase the original architectural features were replaced including doors, windows, and moldings, along with the addition of a fiberboard wall covering in the kitchen and ground floor service rooms. 


During the 1970’s addition of a family room off the kitchen’s northwest, the original stairway to the upper floor was demolished leaving the upper hallway to be repurposed. Though most of the 1970s DIY alterations were easily repaired, some of the changes were not, as in the case of the removal of the stairway. Ground floor five-panel doors and some of the molding surrounding the windows and doors had been destroyed, while the upper hall 1914 handrail was used as an edging feature in the garden. Despite these changes, it was clear that the remaining dominant structural and architectural fabric throughout the house was from 1914 providing a focus date for restoration and any future additions and alterations.


While the owners may be focused personally on their home, their efforts may also add to the history of the town’s early development. The discovery of earlier structures often contributes to a greater understanding of the diversity of early building construction and local history. In this case, the study is expected to contribute to the knowledge of the early settlers and evolution of the farming and lumber industries in which several known owners were involved. While the project began with the study of understanding the home’s evolution of fabric, form, and function by a buildings’ archaeologist, the interdisciplinary knowledge of architectural historian, structural engineer, and architect, as well as a historical landscape architect and local historians are useful to owners of any historic property during projects of additions, restoration, and preservation.

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