125111PvTwo hundred years ago there were few architects to direct carpenters in the way to build a proper home. That was just fine. Homes in general were simple and carpenter architects paid a lot of attention to detail and proportion.There were books written by architects, that provided guidelines and formulas for the creation of homes, but those were a point of departure and did not anticipate every condition that the carpenter would encounter. Those early builders were trained well and took pride not only in the execution of their trade but also in the design of the buildings they created.

Few homes of that period have not been added onto over the centuries. The earliest additions almost universally were built well and are in keeping with the design and craftsmanship of the original home. Twenty-first century additions on the other hand, often are of poor quality materials, workmanship and design.When asked to renovate a period home, we find that much of the time, those later additions have deteriorated and must be removed.

I am always impressed with the ingenuity, and craftsmanship of those nineteenth century builders and the beauty and proportion of their work. There was a tradition of fine home building that only a few carpenters and contractors maintain today. For a wood and stone building to last 200 years, the details had to be right. Even without perfect maintenance, these beautiful homes survive and remind us that the places we live can have elegance and grace and be made to last centuries.


Photos courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey

About the Author: James Crisp

James M. Crisp has been an architect for well over 30 years. His architectural firm, Crisp Architects, designs projects throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In April of 2007, Taunton Press published 'On the Porch' by James M. Crisp and Sandra Mahoney.

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    Michael Grey September 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Mr. Crisp rightly observes that there has been a steady decline of accomplished carpenter/builders over the past century. It may shed some light on the subject to consider what a carpenter back around the turn of the last century considered worthy reading. Good examples of the trade books that carpenter/builders were reading early in the last century include "Modern Carpentry" and "The Steel Square" by Fred T. Hodgson. Also, the fine periodical "American Carpenter and Builder" provided a quality educational resource for the many carpenters and builders that cared about thier craft well into the twentieth century. What is most strikingly revealed in these books is the extent to which the carpenter built EVERYTHING in the home: Windows, Doors, Cabinets, Mouldings, etc., etc. It is my observation that much of the demise in design and execution of buildings and thier components that Mr. Crisp has born witness to is in large extent a consequence of the increasing utilization of factory-manufactured components for these items as the past century progressed. As we see above, and as I have seen on not a few renovation projects, the early carpenters did not just frame houses and "install" the essential components. Consequently, thier skills required more general refinement and more thorough (much more thorough)understanding of thier trade and the priciples of design that it employed. It simply requires more dedication and involvement in one's vocation to build all the components than it does to merely "install" them; and the knowledge gained in the process of doing and learning such things goes well beyond the preparing of the wood, the proper locations of fasteners, etc., and draws one into developing skills involving more abstract principles such as proportion, etc., of which Mr. Crisp speaks. Interestingly, there is another dimension to this whole matter: much of the beauty and vocational satisfaction of being a carpenter has been lost due to the mechanization and specialization that now dominates the building field, as individuals are only required to "install" components, and that, generally, on as quickly a schedule as possible (consider Carlyle's observations here….) The transformation has re-defined the meaning of being a "carpenter" to such an extent that a different kind of person makes for a better "carpenter" these days than the kind of person that made for a master carpenter, say, a hundred and twenty years ago. Still and all, the contemporary country carpenter in the Hudson Valley has the blessed opportunity to work on projects of beauty and quality such as those designed by Mr. Crisp and his talented firm.

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