The Jabez Bacon House – 1760 – By Alison Gilchrist, (c) 1978

Drawing of the house from the rear

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this house is its reflection of both the sophisticated and the provincial approaches to 18th century domestic architecture. This duality is unusual in that Woodbury, first settled in 1673 by families from Stratford as a plantation, was relatively isolated from any large cultural and economic centers. The west and northwest parts of the State were slower to develop than the Connecticut valley and coastal areas; it was a terrain burdened with hills, a higher elevation, and consequently prolonged and more rugged winters. But, as with many another early settlement that survived Indian raids, clearing the land, and the eventual establishment of some agricultural prosperity, travelers and trade were not long in coming, following the river valleys and old Indian trails into the hinterland.  Woodbury became a market town, and to it came a tradesman and entrepreneur with interests in commerce between the communities to the south,m and with the newly opening frontiers well to the west. His store near the junction of Hollow Road and the main street of town became a vital link in the exchange of goods and commodities, and as might be expected his house and outbuildings reflected his business success. His name was Jabez Bacon.

As one of Woodbury’s most prominent citizens, he ordered for himself a house of unusually large proportions and considerable interior embellishment. The main house was part of a complex of buildings, including his shop, a one-room house (both extant) and a sizable warehouse no longer standing. As we shall see, there are a number of curious features which set this house apart from others of its time.

The plan is slightly atypical for a center chimney house, with a 4 instead of a 5 room plan on the ground and second floors. An exceptional feature of the structure as a whole is the height of the house which permits a full third storey. Also impressive (and unusual for the 1760 date) is an apparently full-size cellar. A closer look reveals a fieldstone foundation, filled with mortar, and at one time probably close to 7 feet 6 inches in height before the modern cement floor was poured. An enormous chimney foundation 12′ X 13.5′ takes up the central section of the cellar, and is distinguished by three huge barrel vaults measuring up to 6 feet high and deep, each one extending well into three of the sides of the chimney base. These giant niches that rise from ground level significantly reduce what would otherwise be an unnecessarily massive foundation wasteful of fieldstone.

Basement Niche

Typical of frame construction, there can be found the usual arrangement of the four sills resting directly on the foundation, receiving in mortise holes the wedge-shaped tenoned ends of the chimney girts. These girts are larger than the joists, and each rests in a niche cut along each side of the chimney foundation. The framing of the first floor joists is typical in that those supporting the front two-thirds of the first floor run parallel to the length of the house, and those across the rear run perpendicular. The timbers are hewn; some have been squared off and others remain tree trunk round with the bark left on. The old subflooring consists of rough oak plants, some of which are over two feet wide. Sections of the rear third of the first floor are new. The posts, which rise the height of the house, are hewn at second and third floor levels to create the double overhangs. These flare very slightly on their inside edges as they rise.

As far as one can tell, the second floor framing is also typical, with clear evidence of the two summer beams in the parlor and hall. Chimney girts run across the ends of the front hall and are continued on a slightly offset line by the two rear girts. It is odd that the summers remain, 7″ or 8″ well exposed, in the formal downstairs rooms and yet are concealed in the bedrooms upstairs. Usually in these post-Colonial houses, if the summers are allowed to appear on only one floor, it is only in the second floor rooms that one sees them. Usually in the evolution of post-Colonial houses, the summers disappear first on the ground floor, and those on the second floor remain after until they, too, are tucked into the ceiling. In a fairly elaborate Georgian house such as this, it can be supposed that the owner, a wealthy person, would hire a builder interested in applying the latest and most refined techniques. However, it is possible that the summers were retained in the downstairs rooms for reasons of personal taste or decoration. There is no evidence, as far as one can tell, of a third floor summer beam. However, as the third floor ceiling, or attic floor, is only as wide as the base breadth of the second roof pitch, perhaps the need for a mid-point support for the joists is eliminated. Ceiling heights characteristically diminish as the storeys ascend, so that there is up to a foot of difference between the ground floor and third floor heights. The attic, being the space beneath the second pitch, allows headroom only along the ridge line. An examination of the attic reveals a roof framed in the common rafter system, there being twelve hewn rafters in all, trunnelled at the peak in mortise and tenon fashion. As the use of purlins here is restricted to the break-line in the gambrel roof pitch, there is no ridgepole. Horizontal oak roofing lies across the rafters and the shingles are nailed thereupon.

The Bacon house may be classified as a “double-deck” type, meaning that the additional space provided by the gambrel structure is converted into a usable storey by virtue of a third floor being built at the purlin level. The two purlins are each supported by four posts which rise from end and chimney girts. These purlins then receive the lower ends of the second pitch rafters in addition to the attic floor joists. It cannot be determined exactly how the ends of these joists are framed; however it is probable that they rest in a double-notched purlin. It appears that the joists in front of the chimney stack run  parallel to the front of the house, as opposed to the rest which take the standard perpendicular position. The purpose of this variation perhaps was to eliminate the problem of how to frame these shorter joists at the face of the chimney. There is a small, six paned original window at either end gable, flanked by six queen posts.

As mentioned before, the chimney occupies a vast 12′ X 13.5′ space in the cellar, and although it is reduced in size as it ascends, it still affords fireplaces on all three floors. Particularly impressive is the kitchen fireplace, which spans almost 8 feet and is over four feet in height. Most astonishing, however, is the 10.5′ X 3.5′ granite hearthstone which is cantilevered 2’4″ on its long edge away from the fireplace. The opposite edge has been carried into the masonry of the chimney foundation. At its center point the kitchen fireplace measures 3.5′ deep. Two original beehive ovens extending 2′ and 4′ back into the chimney are positioned behind, rather than beside the fireplace, an indication of their integral relationship to the chimney. The owner’s recent restoration of the two front room fireplaces revealed, behind a 19th century facade, 4′ X 5′ fieldstone hearths, preceded by granite hearthstones. Set into the left stone sides of each is a wooden block used to receive hooks for hanging utensils. There is a similar fireplace in each of the two second floor bedrooms, and a small one in the east bedroom on the third floor. At the attic level, the stone has typically changed to brick and is stepped in at the sides and rear to diminish the mass of the stack as it passes through the roof. A slightly greater portion of the chimney is still to the rear of the roof ridge.

EXTERIOR

Unlike most houses of its time, the Bacon house is an imposing structure, suggesting the pride and status of the man who originally inhabited it. A very stately building as well, much of its strength and impact as a piece of architecture is derived from its simplicity and its size. A high building for its time, the Bacon house seems all the more massive due to the gambrel-type roof. The eye, instead of being drawn directly up to the peak as it would when looking at a plain gable-type roof, is asked to ‘linger’, as it were, over the first pitch before continuing upwards. In this sense, there is visually ‘more to take in’ with the gambrel. The three dormer windows, capped by their triangular pediments work well to relieve this sense of mass, as does the slight second floor overhang.

The first and second, and fourth and fifth windows in the second storey are paired in order to correspond vertically with the lower storey fenestration. The central front door is large, and the single upper storey window in the third position rises in a line above it. This entrance is flanked by two pairs of windows that are aligned directly beneath the overhang. Although these do not carry any ornamentation, the entrance has been restored to a Georgian design based upon the marks of a pediment that once existed. The remainder of the exterior is completely void of decoration. The overhang continues around the sides and rear of the building, hewn and covered with a moulding that serves to soften the break in the wall. The corners of the house are finished by a plain 5″ clapboard stop, and the clapboards themselves are exposed 3.5″ and are mostly original. These are fastened with “boat nails” (1) to the studs which, suggesting from the intervals between nails, vary in their vertical placement from ten to eighteen inches. Providing another horizontal in the architectural design and a subtle form of decoration the main cornice projects approximately 10″ to 12″ and turns the corner at each end to terminate in a short return just above the plate level overhang. A strong and simply moulded rake defines and emphasizes the handsome outline of the gambrel roof. To cover the point at which the roof line changes, the rake takes a ‘Z’ form, and this juncture is drawn across the front of the roof, covered by a single board. As in its earlier days, the roof is shingled.

PLAN

The plan is typical of the later center chimney house, with the exception that the keeping room, or kitchen, extends to the end wall of the house instead of allowing for the usual third rear room. The ground floor, determining the plan of the second floor, consists of a four room layout with a front hall, a dog-leg stair, the two main rooms to either side of the chimney, and the keeping room and buttery to the rear. The rear interior arrangement of rooms has been altered slightly, especially on the second and third floors; however the original back stairs is still intact, leading up to a rear second storey room from the west corner of the kitchen. Because the front staircase runs only as high as the second floor, access to the third storey was gained by way of another set of steps located above the rear stairs. The problem arises as to whether there was ever any interior access to the cellar, as the present basement stair leading down from the buttery is relatively new, and one is lacking in the usual position underneath the front stairs. In a mid-eighteenth century house of this size and relative comfort one would expect to find an interior staircase to the cellar. However, due to some tentative evidence suggesting the possibility of a front cellar stairs, it would not be safe to assume its original absence. Having ascertained that the floor continued across the present stair space because of an empty mortise in the rear sill in a position exactly midway between the joists to either side, we know that the first stairs were not there. Because, however, there is wide, beaded wall paneling at the top step level, it is probably that this space was a closet off of the buttery. A look at the section of floor beneath the front staircase was in order to determine the likelihood of a flight having been there. Although the finish flooring is of very old, wide boards, the view of the subflooring from the basement shows a break between the rest of the subflooring and that in that section. This discrepancy, while slight, lends some evidence to the case arguing an original front cellar access. However, the distinctively early width of the floor boards certainly means that if an original stair was built there, it was soon after removed.

The third floor consists of two rooms flanking the chimney that are connected by a shallow front vestibule. Situated behind the chimney was a short flight of stairs leading to the half-attic.

INTERIOR

Due to the uncommonly high storeys, inside we discover wonderfully high ceilings. The effect is one of any unexpected sense of light, airiness, and elegance, a feeling distinctly post-Colonial. It is particularly in its spatial qualities and dimensions that the Bacon house is unquestionably Georgian. One no longer wonders, upon experiencing its heights, why Roswell Moore* allowed the front parlor and hall summer beams to show, for bringing the ceiling down to help conceal them would have cost several luxurious inches of space! From finish floor to plaster ceiling the ground Storey rooms measure an astonishing 8 foot 4 inches in height. There are 7 foot 8 inch ceilings on the second storey, and those on the third floor have diminished to a still soaring 7.25 foot height!

The rooms themselves are larger than those found in most center chimney houses. Most impressive is the front vestibule which spans over ten feet, still three feet less than the chimney foundation below it. Accordingly, there is ample space for the stairs, which is no longer the steep, cramped affair of the early colonial house. Rising comfortably, the three flights turn twice by way of two fully square landings. The unusual triple-beaded paneling found throughout the house is drawn up the stair wall. the chair rail takes on a dipped, curvilinear form against the white plaster wall, echoing the stair rail. these curved or “bent” sections have been made possible by a technique of cutting short 1″ notches in to the part to be curved, and then probably steaming.

Front Hall

The woodwork of the front hall is of a practically knot-free white pine. The symmetrically turned stair rail feeds via a gracefully dipped curve into a square sawn newel post which is capped by a moulded square-shaped crown. The bottom step turns outward, the rail following and terminating in a smaller but similarly moulded cap. Taking the place of the bottom newel is a post made up of five spiraling balusters. The rest of the balusters, which rise one per step, alternate spiral and square sawn. A decorative scroll-shaped bracket course applied just below the steps embellishes the whole staircase scheme. An arrangement of triangular and rectangular panels fills the section of wall below the steps, and to the left is a simple door to a closet where the cellar stair may have been. Encased posts and girts project from the intersections of the walls and ceilings.

Major structural members are again to be found encased and beaded in all the first and second storey rooms. Girts in all four rooms are disguised as cornices by mouldings that are carried around the intersections of walls and ceilings. These mouldings are also taken along by the paneled summer beams in the downstairs rooms. there are sliding wooden shutters for the windows, which in turn are framed by simple mouldings. Wainscoting is carried around the walls of all the rooms but one. Also boasting the rare triple-beading, the corresponding square panels between the east and west lower rooms project in opposition to one another. The fireplace walls are entirely covered with rectangular, triple-beaded paneling, varying in arrangement from room to room. the mantel designs vary also. In the east parlor a simple moulding frames the fireplace opening, above which rise narrow, fluted pilaster strips capped with the suggestion of a capital and a slightly concave 3″ rosette. The section of cornice above the fireplace projects and breaks, and comes to a carved key motif at the center. In the west room the mantelpiece forms are simple rectangular abstractions of these classical components. Of particular note regarding the cornice work fo the house, is the double dentil course in the east bedroom, the upper course continuing completely around the room. The east room of the third floor has all the decorative woodwork of the lower rooms, and, curiously, a paneling design that is perhaps the most elaborate of the house, although on a reduced scale. It is the only composition in which the panels finish at the top in a curvilinear form. As in the two second floor bedrooms, this fireplace’s simple bolection moulding is enhanced by a lovely and original set of English Delft tile. All of the paneling in the house is of white pine and secured with wooden pegs. The finish floors are of another species of pine, with the exception of the eat parlor floor which is of a later oak **, and the floor of the keeping room which is oak but would have been pine.

The “Provinciality” referred to before is reflected most particularly in the relative lack of understanding and incorrect application of the classical forms attempted in some of the paneling. An illustration of this can be seen above the mantel in the east parlor in the conception of a very heavy cornice which is “supported” by a pair of disproportionately narrow, elongated pilaster strips. At the same time, however, the quality of the carving, turnings and triple-beading is very fine, and the seemingly unlimited variety of detail – untutored or not – makes for constant and refreshing visual excitement throughout the house.

In contrast to the rest of the rooms, the keeping room is paneled in a pine that has turned a very rich and deep brown. Four large, recessed panels above the great hearth set off its slightly arched opening. The dark woodwork surrounding the enormous fireplace, together with the 10 foot hearthstone and the contrasting white plaster ceiling creates a suddenly medieval cast, and thus seems to ask one to remember how the 17th century prototypes of the Georgian house evolved. The chimney girts, also encased in the pine, draw two dark Tudor lines across the white ceiling to join with the two middle rear posts. Two windows are set into the rear wall fo the keeping room, their lower sills marking the line where the paneling changes from a horizontal to a vertical positioning. This single-beaded paneling continues up the back stairs wall and is laid horizontally in broad boards. According to the owners, wainscoting ran across the front, back, and end walls of the keeping room, an unusual location for such a detail which is normally restricted to the more formal living areas. It is partly this “violation” of conventions and juxtaposition of forms and style in the house that were more commonly kept confined to their chronological and aesthetic contexts that gives this house its individuality and appeal.

Reluctant, as it were, to conceded to the increasing formality and grandeur of the central hall house type, yet reconciling with the more primitive center chimney plan an unshakeable sense of the civilised and the enlightened, the Jabez Bacon house proudly assets itself as a mid-eighteenth century dwelling entirely of its own, with a personality and character distinct from “all the others”. Charming in its occasional naiveté, yet reflecting a knowledge of the elegant and the refined, the house at times seems to stare right back at us as if to defy our overly sober and critical eyes.

NOTES

1. “Old Woodbury and Adjacent Domestic Architecture in Connecticut”; The White Pine Monograph Series, Vol. III, No. 2; Oct. 1916

*Roswell Moore, an 18th century builder from Southington, was assumed to be the framer for the house, but there is no definitive documentary evidence for this. – skg

** The oak floor in the east parlor actually is original to the house and is remarkable for the narrowness of the boards and for its construction as a floating floor. The keeping room floor was replaced after a fire. – skg

SOURCES

Cothren, William, History of Ancient Woodbury, Waterbury, Conn. Bronson Brothers, Vol. I,  1854

Isham, Norman M. and Brown, Albert F., Early Connecticut Houses, Dover Publications, Inc. N.Y., 1963

Kelly, J. Frederick, Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut, Dover Publications, Inc. N. Y. 1963

Kettell, Russell H., Early American Rooms 1650 – 1858, Dover Publications, N.Y., 1967

The National Trust for Historic Preservation for the Old Woodbury Historical Society (Tony Wrenn); Woodbury, Connecticut – A New England Townscape, The Preservation Press, Washington, D.C., 1975

Nomination Form for the inclusion of the Jabez Bacon house in the National Register of Historic Places, April, 1971

Article, “Old Woodbury and Adjacent Domestic Architecture in Connecticut”, The White Pine Monograph Series, Vol. III, No. 2, Oct. 1916

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