Earliest Colonial Buildings

The earliest colonial monumental stone structures on the American continent are the 16th- and 17th-century baroque churches of Central and South America. Decorated with lacy, intricate, carved stonework under the direction of Jesuit or Franciscan architects, these Churrigueresque buildings were constructed in great part by the enslaved Indians. Here for the first time can be seen the effects of the union of Indian and European styles. The flamboyant lines of the baroque changed to a more geometric, blocky line which reduces the vitality of the interweave to an emotionless pattern, similar in some respects to early Eastern Christian carving, in others to the plant ornament on the East Indian temples of Ajanta. A section from the fa├žade of the early church at Taxco shows this new American style. Notice particularly the difference between the central grotesque face and earlier European grotesques, as well as the geometric windmill effect of the carved rosettes.

The English emigrants at Jamestown, Virginia, and in New England found the Indians living in long houses built of bowed tree branches covered with bark. Many of the settlers lived in dugouts, others in conical huts of branches, rushes, and turf. The church at Jamestown was a frame structure like an English barn, covered with wattling, grass, and earth. The earliest houses at Plymouth seem to have been made of hewn planks set vertically in the ground like palisades and covered with a thatched roof, perhaps plastered inside. The first log houses of the type used by the Midwestern pioneers appear relatively late ( 1669) and seem to have been brought into America by the Swedes and Finns who settled along the Delaware River.

The most popular houses among the wealthier New England colonists, such as the Capen house built in 1683 at Topsfield, Massachusetts, were framed structures covered with clapboards . In appearance this structure followed closely that of late medieval English city houses, with overhanging stories and high peaked roof. The simple, almost primitive plan shows an entrance in the center of the long side, with a steep staircase, which is placed against the wall of a large, central chimney built to accommodate fireplaces in the great rooms to right and left. The side frames for the house, usually fabricated on the ground by shipwrights or carpenters, were raised into place by the combined efforts of neighbors. Intermediate posts and girders spanning the frame received joists on which the floors were laid with boards of random width. The windows, often swung on hinges, had small diamond-shaped glass panes brought from England.

The interior walls of the New England houses were sometimes built of brick or of daubed wattle, which in time gave place to lath and plaster. The ornamental features of the Capen house are the Tudor chimney and the lower end of the second-story posts carved into pendants. Other famous houses in the early New England medieval tradition are the Fairbanks house in Dedham, the Ward house and the House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts -- all built prior to 1684.

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