Project Plank

 

Owners of old houses often go to great lengths to establish or verify original construction dates of their homes. In some Vermont communities that can be tricky because early records may have been destroyed by fire or suffered some other misfortune. However, other means of verification are available, such as town histories or early newspapers.

For several years Denise and I had been periodically making the 18-plus-hour trip from North Carolina in search of an affordable fixer-upper, preferably an early Vermont post and beam cape with hand-hewn timbers. Weekly, I logged onto Northern New England Real Estate Network (NNEREN) to wade through the latest listings. Prior to each trip we would select several homes, make appointments with realtors and head north for a long weekend.

In spite of viewing dozens of properties over the years, none held our interest until the spring of 2005. Dispirited after checking out four uninspiring houses over two days in early May, we headed back to the bed and breakfast where we were staying. Because it was still early Saturday afternoon, I mentioned to Denise that we were only 20 miles away from another old cape, a fixer-upper within our price range. I also disclosed that this was a property she had rejected six months earlier when I presented her with a printout of the listing. Despite her prior rebuff, I had remained interested and contacted Joyce Hatcher, the realtor, for more pictures. Everything I saw in those photos led me to believe the house merited further consideration.

“Okay,” Denise responded,“let’s take a look.”

Merging off US-2 onto I-91, I called Joyce and asked if we could see the house.

“Meet you there in fifteen minutes,” she responded.

A mile and a half north of Sheffield village I slowed the Blazer to a mere crawl.

“This is it,” I said to Denise as I turned into the driveway.

I could see her scanning the property, visually taking in the house.

“Wow! I like it!” she exclaimed. 

Maybe we’ve finally found the place we’ve been looking for, I thought.

“It’s a plank house, believed to have been built in 1842,” explained Joyce who arrived shortly after us. Several years would pass before I understood the full significance of and developed an appreciation for plank houses.

The lady, who occupied the property from 1946 until she sold it to a Connecticut couple in 2003, did a modicum of upkeep. Over the years the rear rotted, and the sill settled into the ground. The Connecticut couple, although meaning well, undertook some sill and plank repairs, but soon realized a full restoration was going to be more than they could handle; plus the husband’s employer transferred him to Colorado, which made their situation dubious. So, they put the empty house on the market.

Once inside it became obvious that this was“the place.” Denise heartily agreed, saying,“It feels right.”

It was mid-September before we finally closed the deal and took possession. With our cat Border, we spent our first weekend sleeping on a double bed mattress placed on the floor and eating at an old dining room table we transported from North Carolina. From local second hand stores we purchased chairs, lamps, rugs, and other odds and ends necessary to get comfortable enough to not feel like we were camping.

It wasn’t until late November that we were able to make the trip again, spending our first Thanksgiving in the 163-year-old plank house, cooking the turkey and all the trimmings in the home’s vintage Hardwick gas stove.

Border took an immediate liking to the house, spending hours exploring the attic and cellar and ridding the place of mice. The cat made about a dozen trips with us. Traveling up I-91, just north of St. Johnsbury she would suddenly perk up, scramble onto the dashboard and start to chatter. A sixth sense told her we were nearing the old farmhouse in Sheffield.

With succeeding trips, we explored and measured everything inside and outside the house. We planned, re-planned and re-planned again and again, until we were fairly certain of what we wanted to do. I was intrigued with the hand-hewn timbers in the attic and cellar, yet concerned because the main house showed no supporting corner posts.

Inquiries as to whom to hire to repair and restore the house led us to Ed Jewell. After checking over the property, Ed told us what he could do and the expected cost. He expressed gratitude that someone had purchased the house everyone else said“ought to be burnt down.”“For years I’ve been driving past this house several times daily,” said Ed,“and always figured it was worth saving.”

“We’re told it’s a plank house,” I said.

“Yup,” he responded.“This area has a lot of‘em; I’ve worked on several.”

In the process of removing plaster, lathe, and blown-in wool insulation from above the ceiling, the original construction of the building came into view. Eight-inch hand-hewn beams held aloft by wide three-inch-thick sawn planks standing 90-inches comprised its structure.

In the midst of gutting, Ed uncovered a chalked date on the end girt over the kitchen sink.“1831 9thJune” was clearly visible. To the right of the date could faintly be made out the name“Lougee.” George C. Lougee and his wife Solhia were the first recorded owners of the property according to a research of deeds. That should have been proof enough to establish June 9, 1831, as the date of raising; however, there was even more confirmation.

Beneath the beam, pasted on the inside of the two exterior walls of that room, wereNorth Starnewspapers. Dates of“Tuesday Morning” May ?, 1831; August 23, 1831; October 25, 1831; November 8& 11, 1831 and December 13, 1831, gave testimony that 1831, and not 1842, was the year of construction. The newspapers had been used as insulation and wallpaper for that room. At a later date, lathe and plaster had been applied over the newspapers.

Pasting newspapers to the exterior walls made sense because as the planks dried they shrank, creating gaps between them. When the cold and penetrating winds of December, 1831, began capturing what warmth the fireplace could give off, the family sealed the widening gaps in what then was probably the main family room and kitchen. Otherwise it would have been a chilly Christmas that year. The easiest and least expensive way to insulate was to seal the walls with newspapers, and at that time, the weeklyNorth Starwas read widely throughout northeastern Vermont.

Gutting exposed the very essence of how a plank house was constructed.

Until 1830 as many as one-third of the dwellings built in the Northeast Kingdom were various style plank houses. In reading“The Plank Framed House in Northeastern Vermont,” by Jan Leo Lewandowski, I was able to surmise that ours is a“Type 2” plank house, the strongest and most substantial method of building at the time.

Comprised of vertical planks between sill and plate without posts, each plank is tenoned into the overhead plate and supporting sill, with stress pins pegged laterally into the edges of abutting planks about halfway between sill and plate. For the building to rack out of shape, a significant number of these pegs would have to shear simultaneously. This solidity was evidenced when the house was jacked for sill work. Ed said the entire house hinged on the front sill without racking when jacked at the rear, lifting the top of the chimney along with the roof. The chimney separated just below attic level. This stability is also evidenced along the northwest gable end of the house where clapboarding, level when installed, now inclines more than eight inches from front to back, a distance of 27 feet.

Stress-pegged Type 2 plank framing formed a solid wood wall, eliminating the need for corner bracing or corner posts, much as sheet plywood does in present day construction. Openings for doors and windows were accounted for in the framing process or simply cut out after the walls were raised, removing the need for separate studding and headings.

Quoting from Lewandowski,“Type 2 plank frame, plank without posts, is the most numerically significant in northeastern Vermont, and as many as several hundred may [still] exist. It also represents the most significant departure from the timber, or balloon framing which followed, in that loads from roof and floors are transferred to the ground with complete uniformity all around the building, rather than being carried by a few posts or a number of studs.”

Assembly and erection of a Type 2 plank house necessitated all planks and beams be prepared in advance and set into place and raised as a combined unit since none of the planks could stand alone on the sill without some sort of temporary bracing.

“The Type 2 plank frame house has no posts, studs, or diagonal braces, only planks between sill and plate,” Lewandowski continued.“Planks no different from any others meet to form corners, or frame windows and doors.”

The fully developed Type 2 plank frame, where planks replace all corner posts, studs and braces does not indicate a primitive method or an isolated pocket of construction in Vermont, but rather one method among several available at the time, and one with several distinct advantages over post and beam, and subsequent balloon and stick-built framing. What looks to be primal and overbuilt, was actually a refinement of an old technique well adapted to newly settled areas still rich in virgin forests and with a need to build quickly. The technique used more sawn and less hewn timber and required less skilled labor. Other advantages were multiples of similar parts, ease of layout, and absence of posts with their numerous mortises and toilsome corner bracing because each wide plank acted as opposing diagonal bracing. The plank frame also provided the basis for a more elegant interior of Federal style homes by eliminating the indoor visual of corner posts.

A typical post and beam frame construction in c1800 Vermont required sawn or hewn posts, sills, plates, joists, and rafters, accompanied by sawn studs and braces covered with one or two layers of sawn boards. The chief benefit of plank frame construction was that it took no longer to saw out a three-inch plank, regardless of width, than it did to saw out a one-inch sheathing board, and the plank served as post, stud, brace, and sheathing as well, all of which individually required hewing and/or sawing in a post and beam structure.

Unfortunately plank framing was constrained to the period in which it was prevalent, c1780s-c1830s, because it demanded large dimension timber. Planks of spruce, fir and hemlock generally varied in width up to 26 inches.

Depletion of virgin timber coupled with introduction of the circular saw blade led to general acceptance of balloon frame construction and the resulting demise of wide-plank frame construction.

Denise and I didn’t get our traditional Vermont post and beam house -- we got something better; a Type 2 Plank House, replete with all the tradition and character of the Northeast Kingdom. Now all we have to do is finish restoring it.