1794 Scriba Mansion

Constantia, NY

 

Michael R. Franklin
Licensed Real Estate Broker
(o) 315-876-2262
Mike.Franklin@FranklinRuttan.com

Architecture

The 1794 Scriba house is a salt box style house. They are called salt box houses from their resemblance to the shape of the wooden boxes hung on the walls of colonial kitchens to store salt. They have two stories in the front and one in back, which gives them their characteristic roof – short and steep in front, long and sloping in the rear. They have a flat face with a center entrance, often with a transom, and symmetrically arranged double hung windows. This arrangement can be seen in postcards of the Scriba house from around 1900. The current window in the living room was installed at some later date. Salt box houses usually have a center chimney, although some like the Scriba house have a chimney on either side. Because the exterior chimneys align with the peak of the roof and the fireplaces are centered on the exterior walls of the rooms, the interior portion of the chimneys zig-zag. This can be seen in the attic. Most salt boxes had wooden siding, either clapboard or shingles, although a few were faced with brick. The insides tended to be simple and functional.

There are two explanations for the shape of the house. One is that during the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714) there was a tax on houses of more than one story. Having only one story in back allowed them to avoid the tax. The other more likely explanation is that as a family grew more room was needed, so a lean-to was added across the back. Later this addition was included as part of the original structure. The lean-to portion was divided into three rooms: a kitchen, a store room and a room used for childbirth and family members who were unable to climb the stairs due to illness or injury. In the Scriba house, what is now the dining room was originally divided by a wall. The front part was lined with shelves used for storage and the rear was part of the kitchen. A Dutch oven stood where the powder room is now located. Its brick foundation is still present in the basement.

Salt box houses appeared in New England around 1650 and were popular until the mid- 1700’s. They continued to be built in New England until around 1830 and elsewhere until the late 1800’s. They are found as far North as Nova Scotia and West to Ohio. In the South, a version with a very long roof sloping to within a few feet of the ground is known as a catslide house.

The Scriba house, like all wood houses until the mid- 1800’s, is timber frame (also known as post and beam) construction. In this style of construction the large structural elements are joined with woodworking joints such as mortise-and-tenon or pegs. Most references say this was due to the expense of nails, but it is more likely that this is style of construction that had been used for hundreds of years and builders were familiar and comfortable with it. Square hand-made nails were used in smaller elements, such as nailing down floor boards and attaching lathe to the walls. If you go into the attic of the Scriba house and look up, you will see tapered rafters pegged together at the peak. In the attic there are also three tension rods with turnbuckles attached firmly to the purlins (horizontal beams) at the front and rear to prevent the walls from shifting outwards. Scriba family lore says that if you can see sky at the peak of the roof, you need to tighten the turnbuckles.

The beams were hewed from a single log. Joints were cut into the beam while it was on the ground. When we removed the inside walls, it was seen that each wall stud had a roman numeral and other symbols cut in to it with a matching set cut into the beam. This enabled each wall stud tenon to be placed in the correct mortise on the cross beam when the frame was assembled. In addition to placement of the wall studs, the symbols indicated the location of the beam in the house. Entire walls would have been assembled on the ground and then stood up in the proper location.


During various structural repairs it was noted that the house was built in the Dutch style with a wooden gutter cut from one long beam (no longer present) across the back of the house. The hardware that attached the gutter was present on a horizontal beam across the back of the house before it was replaced. The house was built at a time when major changes in construction techniques were beginning to occur and it has a mixture of old and newer techniques. By the mid 1800’s timber frame construction had been replaced by balloon construction which was used until well into the twentieth century when it was replaced with the techniques used today.

 

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