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.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in October 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.
Saltbox colonials, built mainly from the mid-17th into the late 18th centuries, generally feature the same basic shape: They have a flat, two-story facade, a center chimney, and a steeply sloping roof that cuts the elevation from two stories to a single story in the back.
The saltbox has architectural roots in the United Kingdom—unsurprising since the first examples were built in New England around the time England colonized the northeast. The shape of the house is directly related to post-medieval English architecture of the 17th century, which depends upon a large central chimney to divide the footprint of the house into rooms.
And its salty name? That may have come from how the shape of the houses resemble antique salt storage boxes.
The saltbox’s characteristic sloping roof has a debatable origin. It may have been a clever design to avoid a tax that Queen Anne imposed on houses that were greater than a single story. The shorter facade supposedly rendered the house tax exempt.
Whether or not any taxes were avoided, the shape of the roof was practical, creating good places for food storage and kitchen space. Here are a look at a few saltbox colonials on the market right now.
The layout of a saltbox colonial is pretty standard: the front door opens to a shallow foyer. On either side are two living rooms and then running the full length of the house in the back is a large great room. These three rooms all have their own fireplace, which radiate off the central chimney.
This Connecticut saltbox, built in 1786, follows that plan exactly. We are especially in love with the incredible walk-in fireplace, which includes a bread oven. The large fireplace occupies the room that extends the full length of the house. That room was generally a multipurpose one, used for living, eating, and cooking. Those beautiful wide-plank wood floors get extra points.
While this house was built 1740, it wasn’t always in Katonah, a small town just north of New York City. The house was originally constructed in Massachusetts and was in 1950 moved to its current location.
Saltbox colonials usually have proportionally large windows for the size of their rooms. That’s especially noticeable in one of the bedrooms of this house, where the 12-over-12 sash windows let in ample light.
Saltbox colonials brim with rustic finishes: exposed beams are hand-carved and wood is usually unvarnished. Finding delicate woodwork is pretty rare. The main living room of this house—with its massive brick-and-wood fireplace—is a perfect example of the types of finishes that one would generally encounter in an 18th-century saltbox.
However, there are always exceptions to the rule. While this 1789 home follows the general layout of a saltbox, the front rooms are outfitted with wood paneling. There is no extra paneling in the back room—which has a large cooking fireplace.
In fact, it almost looks like the mantle for the cooking fireplace has been lost over the years—a perfect potential restoration project.
Elsewhere on the first floor, the front entry and dining rooms also have wood paneling—and a winding staircase that looks like it could have been added in the 19th century. If that’s the case, then it could also be that the paneling elsewhere in the house was also added in the 1800s, after the home was originally built. Sounds like there’s some detective work to do for the new homeowner!