Half-timber! That’s a word you may not have heard unless you are readers of historical novels or British mysteries. Or, perhaps, those who study royal lineage of the 1500’s, the sixteenth century, when the architectural style was called “Tudor.”
Half-timber were those “planks” laid flat on the sides of buildings in some diagonal pattern, usually against “wattle and daub,” or material such as stucco. Such designs are pictured on the photos here. The modern era of that style was from the 1890’s to the 1940’s, then in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.
The first of the type appeared in Britain in the late 1400’s. The features that identified them then do so now ... Steeply pitched roof, grand, a bulky chimney mostly with the flues separate and their tops capped with “chimney pots” which could all be differing in design. Windows are set in pairs or in fours, sometimes more, often with a peaked arch top called the “Tudor arch” and the doors are nearly always arched also. All these houses have arched door entries. Usually the surround of the door is outlined with a pattern of brick or in the case of the small cottage here, with stone which also trims the window of the garage at the far right. Corners are sometimes trimmed out in stone, too, like quoins to add elegance to the facade.
The facade will often have a chimney dominating it as here in the small cottage.
In the beginning a stepped chimney could be at the ends, either interior or exterior and the roof at first was thatched unless it was a large manor when the roof was covered, possibly, with tile as the Dutch did. Or shakes of oak. The Swedish had used shakes (shingles—handmade) for a thousand years before.
Windows by necessity were small paned. A way to make large single panes of glass had not yet been discovered ... Actually not until a couple centuries went by. The small panes could be square or diamond-shaped, a feature that carried into the twentieth century. You may see them on some of the residences here although some windows have been replaced with modern glazing which has the R factor! That diamond design carried over onto the brick of the walls if brick was the material of choice ... Patterns would be laid in a contrasting pattern such as connecting vertical diamonds called “diapering” or some other geometric plan. Expense was no object for some but half-timbers covered the top stories at the gable ends or on dormers.
If you could call them an architectural style, the very first houses built in America at the Jamestown colony, 1607, was the Tudor even though they were one room abodes. They were as large as sixteen feet square because that’s what the length of the logs were, heavy timbers at corners and some wooden filling in between, then the stucco type material with half-timbering laid diagonally across the wall of those crude cottages. William Strachey wrote in 1610, “But Halls we build for us and ours to dwell in whilst we live here ...”
You might imagine Hall meaning a large high ceilinged room hung with heavy multi-candled chandeliers, a massive table laid with a whole hog roasted on a spit and flagons of brew before a roaring blaze in a walk-in fireplace, but you’d be wrong. Back in the 1600’s yet Hall was used instead of house ... Residence or Halls just as Chamber was the same as bedroom.
Those Jamestown cottages were the same as in England where everyone lived in the one room, worked, cooked, ate, slept altogether—with the livestock! And while the doorways may not have been arched prettily and the “wind holes”, windows, were uncovered except for shutters. Can you imagine living like that and with an earthen floor. No wonder the Jamestown colonists completely disappeared without our knowing what happened to them.
Some improvement occurred, however, when the Plymouth Colony arrived in 1620, but not much. Their houses were Tudor also, one room, earthen floors but a few of them would order heavily oiled paper to cover the wind holes. It had to come from England. The Pilgrims arrived, you know, in late fall, a poor choice to have to build with winter blowing down your neck. The Pilgrims built what was familiar to them in the latest style. Like the Jamestownites, the Plymouth people too, built a steep roof and thatched them until 1629 when a rule banned them because of the flammability. Then Shakes were used.
A partial loft covered part of the one room, then the entire as time passed a hole was cut in the “ceiling” with a ladder to go up and down ... Sometimes attached to the wall. But a must in those humble cottages was a large bucket of water beside the upstairs chimney to put out the fire which so easily spread ... Not if, but when. Re-creations of those Tudor styles can be found at both sites today.
Tudor was the first architectural house style used in America and for decades after in many modified varieties ... Wood, brick, stone, etc. with the half-timber, the telling features in all no matter what their cost. Many other styles followed, some to last and be repeated for years, others to quickly fade away until in the 1890’s when Tudor was revived in all sizes and roof lines (though it was steeply pitched)! This time around there were no earthen floors but hardwood. There were furnaces, glass on the windows, running water, telephones, electricity ... All the comforts desired. The style was popular in the United States until the 1940’s.
Following World War I, in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, Tudor with Colonial Revival were the two most popular house style throughout.
Every sizeable town/city has several impressive houses in the Tudor style, the first in America. We are appreciative of the sturdy comfortable and attractive charm that has graced America since its beginning. The twentieth century examples are sometimes included under “Period Houses” and those revived in the 1970’s, ‘80’s have had modern adaptations from those of four hundred years ago. Earthen floors and unglazed “wind holes”