I took advantage of a gorgeous New England fall day to take a day trip to Portsmouth, NH as there were still two Historic New England homes that I had yet to visit. The Jackson House, located just a block or so from downtown, was a great way to start our day!
- The Jackson House was built by Richard Jackson in 1664, and today boasts the title of the oldest wood-frame house in New Hampshire. Jackson was a woodworker, farmer, and seafarer who built this house on his 25 acre plot on the banks of the Piscataqua River. His father-in-law owned an adjoining 25 acres, so together they had a substantial amount of land.
- At that time, Portsmouth, NH was becoming well known for it’s “ease of living” as the soil was good for farming and the bounty from the sea was non-stop with easy to access. However, one huge difference was the overwhelming amount of trees in the area for lumber. By this time period, the English (and other Europeans) had decimated many of the forests in Europe, so coming to America and seeing all the lumber for the taking was extraordinary. They were “wood rich”, which they showed off in the construction of their homes here. Imagine a countryside cottage in England; the stucco exterior and thatched roof became popular because they simply didn’t have the wood available for for clapboard siding and wooden roof shingles.
- With that said, the construction and craftsmanship of the home is really the star of the Jackson House story. Built originally as a two over two house (two rooms downstairs, two upstairs) in the post-medieval English style, featuring a large seventeenth century parlor & kitchen downstairs, with two bedchambers upstairs. The giant chimney in the center of the home is another ode to their English roots, allowing for a fireplace in each room. Amazingly, there are no studs supporting the walls – studs support the window frames only. This is a testament to the abundance of timber available, and as seen throughout the house, how absolutely gigantic the trees were.
- Richard Jackson sadly outlived his sons, and he passed in 1718, and the house and land was divided up between a daughter-in-law and his grandchildren. In 1727 tax records show that 12 men above the age of 18 lived in the house – and, since at that time they didn’t bother to count women or children, one can only assume close to 30 people lived in this four room house.
- There is little known about the stories of the Jackson family from 1727 – 1897, other than the fact that five generations of men named Nathaniel Jackson continued to own and live in the home. Chamber additions were made to either side of the original house starting in 1715 (both upstairs and downstairs), and a lean-to was added in the back (making that distinctive sloping roof you see today), and also a shop was added out front to make money.
- In 1897, the last Nathaniel Jackson’s daughter, Mary Brown, inherited the house and chose to rent it instead of living in it. She leased it to two African-Americans who were rumored to have arrived in New Hampshire via the Underground Railroad.
- William Sumner Appleton, founder of Historic New England, visited this house as a freshman in college in 1893, and became smitten with it. Years later in 1924, he returned with the intent of purchasing the house , which he did, and Jackson House became the foundation for the philosophy of historic home restoration and preservation for the Historic New England organization.
This is a true 1664 parlor, or living room as we would call it, and it sure feels that way. The fireplace is huge, although would not have given off as much heat as you would think (or would have liked during those cold New Hampshire winters!). But, again, the star of the show here is the wood. The planks on the wall and floor are so wide – +16 inches if I had to estimate? – so imagine just how HUGE the tree would have had to been. The thought of the huge ceiling beams being put into place without machinery in 1664 is truly astounding.
I liked this bedroom chamber best because of the triangular timber frame detailing in the corners which I had never seen before. Imagine yourself in the late 1600’s sleeping here with a minimum of 8 other people in this room – cozy, or no?
I’m a sucker for a good bee-hive oven, and this was a great example. With very low ceilings to keep the room warm and the giant fireplace, I can imagine this was truly the heart of the Jackson home. Also, the ceiling beams had “fancy” trim work, which was their way of showing off at that time period.
- The diamond pattern glass windows are so very pretty, and remind me of the Browne House in Watertown, Ma (another early purchase by William Sumner Appleton). While they are not original and likely not historically accurate, they sure are pretty and offer beautiful views.
- Don’t miss the strip of wallpaper above the mantel in the downstairs East chamber – it’s a great reminder that while the home is empty of that “homey” feel today, it once was in fact a home! And, as a matter of fact, the Jackson house was lived in until the 1920s, without any indoor plumbing or electricity. Electricity was only added within the past few years due to fire codes.
- The shop has preserved carvings into the wood from October 21, 1769, but other than those words it is hard to make out much else (other than some crazy math problem). I always love seeing things like this uncovered and preserved. If you do too, don’t miss the Rocky Hill Meeting House, which isn’t far from Portsmouth, NH!
- The “home security system” of the large timber that locks in behind the front door was really cool to see – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that has a notch in the wall. And, they still use this to secure the house every single night! If details like this tickle your fancy make sure to check out the Gilman Garrison house, a fort turned home!
- The Jackson House is only open two days per month, so make sure you plan accordingly!
- Things are ever changing with COVID-19 rules & restrictions, so I would recommend purchasing/reserving your tickets online as tours are limited to a small number of attendees. And, bring your mask!
- I’ve been to Portsmouth, NH many times, but always to the downtown area (which, is adorable but pretty small). Strike out for a walk in the surrounding neighborhoods – the homes there are so, so pretty and most historic. I loved marveling at all doorknockers and intricate doorways. Plus, the history of the city itself is quite interesting.
- Don’t miss out on the water! We recently took a day trip to the Isle of Shoals from Portsmouth, NH and it was a trip I would certainly take again!