Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
As much as we love the opulent homes of the Gilded Age or stately, academic, Greek Revival architecture, some of the coziest historic houses out there have also the simplest—and oldest—designs. Those houses are largely referred to as "saltbox colonials."
Built largely from the mid-17th into the late 18th centuries, these wooden houses generally have flat fronts, big center chimneys, and steeply sloping roofs in the back. The style of architecture got its name from its resemblance to antique salt boxes.
Like many buildings constructed around the time English settlers colonized North America, the saltbox—mostly found around New England—has architectural roots across the pond. The shape of the house is directly related to post-medieval English architecture of the 17th century, which uses a central chimney to divide the footprint of the house into rooms.
The characteristic sloping roof, which brings the back elevation down to a single story while the street facade stands proudly at a two-story height, has a slightly debatable origin. There are some that link the shape to a tax that Queen Anne imposed on houses that were greater than a single story (what wasn’t taxed by the monarchy at some point?). The shorter facade supposedly exempted the structure from the tax. The areas under the tapered rooflines were good places for food storage, kitchen space, and other auxiliary rooms.
Aside from the signature roofline, our favorite things about these houses are their chimneys: Since these houses were built before the proliferation of coal and gas as a form of heating, wood fires were used for heating and cooking. That means the fireplaces in these houses are large and plentiful—perfect for the colder months ahead!
Take a look below at five of our favorite saltbox colonials on the market right now.
Ridgefield, Connecticut (4 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, $995,000)
This house had us from the moment we saw the walk-in stone fireplace with beehive oven. Built in 1730, the 3,715-square-foot house has been maintained and restored over its nearly 300-year lifespan.
Our eye was first drawn to the woodwork—both the molding around the fireplaces and windows, and to the wooden floors. It’s in remarkable shape. Also, it seems that all of the fireplaces are working, which is no small feat for a house older than our nation by almost half a century. Having these elements completely intact and functioning is key and, we'll add, quite rare, hence the house's price. Not to mention the renovated kitchen (which is modern but still vintage-y looking) and *that pool.*
Sagaponack, New York (4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, $1.85 million)
While many saltbox colonials are found in New England, you can also find them scattered around the greater northeast region, like this 1774 stunner on Long Island.
Now, we’ll be honest: this one has really been renovated. It's also been added onto—that long kitchen was probably tacked on at a later point in the house’s history. The structure caught our eye, though, because it deals cleverly with the notoriously low ceiling heights found in saltbox colonials. Many of the bedrooms feature exposed beams, which means that the attic was probably sacrificed so cathedral ceilings could be added. This not only increases natural light and air circulation in the room—it also shows off those hand-hewn beams!
Higganum, Connecticut (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $399,900)
This delightful 1720-built home features the simple floorplan for which saltbox colonials are best known. The first level accommodates all three rooms: Living, dining, and kitchen—and each has a gorgeous fireplace. We're particularly fond of the fireplace in the kitchen, which has an iron crane for hanging pots.
The paneling over the fireplaces in both the living and dining rooms is also lovely. Unless you’re looking at truly grand houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, woodwork is kept rather plain. It’s nice to see this bit of decoration in these first-floor rooms.
We’d be remiss if we also didn’t give a shoutout to the house's idyllic garden. The pool, though not historically accurate, is also a welcome addition—something to look forward to when we’re forced away from the hearth in the warmer months.
Weymouth, Massachusetts (3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, $750,000)
Just about 40 minutes south of Boston—and a stone’s throw from the bay—this clapboard 1798 house is a bit peculiar. On the outside it seems like a typical saltbox. But inside there's a double-height fireplace (no doubt repurposed from another house), a brick-clad wine cellar, and a rather unique dining room.
If you follow Period Dramas closely (which we hope you do), you may remember our three-part series on wallpaper. The dining room here is clad in the same Zuber woodblock-print paper that we focused on in that series. The pattern is called "Scenes of North America," and the central scene in this room is, appropriately, Boston harbor. While the paper is probably not original to when the house was first built, its very existence is a special find.
Pound Ridge, New York (5 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, $1.65 million)
We’re ending our tour just north of New York City with our oldest house—originally built in 1670. Clearly the 5,533-square-foot house has been renovated and added onto throughout its lifespan, but this house retains many of its original features, too: we’re talking gorgeous wood beams stretching across the ceiling, wood paneling, and not one but two oversized fireplaces.
What’s especially noticeable about these larger fireplaces is that three of them have iron cranes, which is typically an instrument for cooking. If they are original to the house, that would be an indication that the kitchen was moved two times over the course of the early life of the house, when cooking was still done over a wood fire.
But thankfully, the kitchen today is very much of the 21st century—marble countertops, farmhouse sink, and all. It seems to be located in a more recent addition to the house, which is sensitively tied to the older portions through repurposed beams in the ceiling.