Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
This week, the U.S. celebrated its 241st birthday. And while the Declaration of Independence may be safely in Washington, D.C., not every artifact from America’s revolutionary past is guarded behind glass in a museum.
Up and down the east coast, houses with connections to the Revolutionary War are not only still standing, they’re still being used as private homes. Whether they were the former homes of soldiers or places where notable players in the war passed through, these 18th-century residences all share a few characteristics: They’re mainly wood-frame structures with central chimneys and wood clapboard cladding.
These early colonial houses are cousins of the English Georgian style, which was popular when England started colonizing the eastern U.S. coast. Floorplans in the American houses are quite simple: Generally, there’s a small entryway bookended by two large rooms and one smaller room in the back, with the central chimney acting as the main device to separate the spaces into discrete rooms. The second-floor layout is usually very similar to that of the first.
And beyond their structural charm, they all have a place in the foundation of American history. Here, we’ve rounded up three houses for sale right now, each of which played a role in the Revolutionary War.
Completed in 1772, this wood house—known as the Nehemiah Smedley House was the residence of one of Williamstown’s founding families.
The house, which recently received a top-to-bottom restoration, features an open plan that emphasizes the massive central chimney. The two main living spaces have dedicated walk-in fireplaces. One of those fireplaces has an oven, identifying it as a “cooking fireplace,” where food and bread was prepared. The line between a living room and a kitchen in the 18th century was very much blurred, so food would have likely been prepared in rooms also intended for social gatherings.
But the real gem of this house is in the basement. In the 1770s, the basement was home to “Smedley Tavern,” which took in a soldier by the name of Benedict Arnold in 1776 when he was passing through Williamstown en route to the battle of Fort Ticonderoga.
Until the restoration, the basement was covered up; various additions and finishes had obscured the original stone details and fireplace. The project even restored the original basement entrance to the tavern, along with other doors and hardware throughout the house.
Completed in 1765, this house in Connecticut was home to Benjamin Gould, a minuteman in Topsfield.
The clapboard house has classical details on the exterior—holdovers from the Georgian architectural style—like dentil molding just under the eaves of the roof and a pediment over the doorway.
Inside, though there have been some modern renovations, the principal rooms on the first floor retain original wood paneling. Many of the rooms also feature wide floorboards—a hallmark of 18th and early-19th century construction—which appear to have been sanded and refinished.
The house also seems to retain what’s known as a “keeping room,” essentially a living room with a large fireplace. Yes, we know that all of these fireplaces tend to be oversized, but the fireplace in the “keeping room” is usually significantly oversized, as it was used for cooking and other practical tasks.
The “keeping room” was usually located close to where the main cooking for the house was done. It was a place for eating, living, and sleeping—especially in the colder months.
Okay, so, we know that this house has largely been renovated. Yes, some traces of 18th-century charm—like those timber joists on the dining room ceiling and the knocked-together mantel in the library—still exist. But this house has received a top-to-bottom, 20th-century renovation, which has either obscured or removed many of the details.
Our guess is that the house was renovated in the first half of the 20th century, during the Colonial Revival period.
However! This house was home to Enoch Crosby. Crosby, who was based in Westchester County—just north of Manhattan—was mistaken for a Loyalist, and he was invited to one of their meetings. Following the meeting, Crosby reported his findings to John Jay, who was at the time a member of the Committee of Safety. Jay subsequently had the loyalists arrested.
Jay then employed Crosby as a full-time spy during the Revolutionary War, who worked in upstate New York to wiggle his way into Loyalist camps. It’s believed that Crosby inspired the 1821 book The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper.