Welcome to CIRCA School, in which Amanda uncovers the fascinating facts behind everyone’s favorite old house details. Today’s lesson has been around since the Middle Ages, so it’s about time we learned it!
After a nice holiday break, it’s back to school we go! Let’s take a look at half-timbering, one of those wonderful Old World treasures that really took off on our shores in the 19th and 20th centuries. These flat timbers – typically paired with stucco or brick infill – were used to great decorative effect on the upper floors and gables of Tudors, Queen Annes, Craftsmans, and a few other house styles of a century or two ago. But did you know that half-timbering has practical roots that date way back to the Middle Ages?
Originally, half-timbering in medieval Europe formed part of a structural system where sturdy timbers actually supported the weight of a house. Infill consisted of thin wood slats known as lath (“wattle”) that was stuffed in between and covered with a combination of natural materials, such as clay, straw, or dung (“daub”). There’s a term to satisfy your inner historical architecture geek: wattle and daub construction!
Fast forward to the early years of colonial New England. Winters were harsh, the rain was forceful, and settlers would have had a tough time keeping this infill from cracking. Not exactly the best solution for surviving the elements! Half-timbering did find its place in the New World with later examples that included homes of the Pennsylvania Dutch and French colonists down south.
Even with this great backstory, it’s as “false half-timbering” in 19th- and 20th-century homes that we best know this charming architectural feature. And, oh, the variations that are out there! From Tudors to Queen Annes to Craftsmans, these decorative straight or curvy half-timbers give an age-old quality to many an historical home across the country. Not too shabby having a quaint little slice of Europe in our very own front yards, is it?
AUTHOR AMANDA DAVIS
Amanda is an historic preservationist living in New York City with a particular fondness for fixer-uppers. She can be spotted checking out quirky historic details here, there, and everywhere in her handmade dresses. Every time Amanda sees a cozy room with large windows and beautiful built-ins she can’t help but imagine her very own sewing nook with oldies music playing in the background.