James Blake House
735 Columbia Road (Richardson Park)
Dorchester, MA 02125

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Boston's oldest house, the James Blake House, sits on Dorchester's Columbia Road, about 400 yards from its original location on what is now Massachusetts Avenue (where the parking lot of the Nstar property is located today). The house is one of only a few examples of West England country framing in the United States. Most of the early colonial homes in Dorchester, such as the Pierce House, were built by housewrights from the south and east of England, where brick and plaster building predominated. However, the Blake House was built in the manner of the homes of western England, which had long used heavy timber-framing methods. The James Blake House is a two-story, central chimney, gable-roof dwelling of timber-frame construction. It is on a rectangular plan, three bays wide and one bay deep and measures 38 by 20 feet. Built in 1661, the house is one of a relatively small number of its type - the post-Medieval, timber-frame house - surviving anywhere in New England.

Architecture

Probable appearance of the James Blake House when it was built in 1661.

Illustration from The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 by Abbot Lowell Cummings.1979.

The James Blake House is a two-story, central chimney, gable-roof dwelling of timber-frame construction. It is on a rectangular plan, three bays wide and one bay deep, and measures 38 by 20 feet. Built in about 1650, the house is one of a relatively small number of its type--the post-Medieval, timber-frame house--surviving anywhere in New England. The house is thought to be one of only a few examples of West England country framing in the United States. Most of the early colonial homes in Dorchester, such as the Pierce House (1683), were built by housewrights from the south and east of England, where brick and plaster building predominated. However, the Blake House was built in the manner of the homes of western England, which had long used more and heavier timber in their framing methods.

The Family

The Blake House was built near a spring and tributary to Mill Creek, west of the Five Corners and therefore west of the first Meeting House at Pond and Cottage Streets, on land adjoining that of the Clap family. Its original occupants were James Blake and his wife Elizabeth. James was born in Pitminster, England, in 1624, and emigrated with his parents to Dorchester in the 1630s. He married Elizabeth Clap, the daughter of Deacon Edward Clap and niece of Roger Clap, in 1651. James became allied through marriage to the large Clap family whose activities of daily life in the New World were based upon practices brought from their English West Country background. Their agrarian economy included dairy farming with milk and butter production; growing wheat and corn and establishing grist mills; establishing orchards for apples and cider; and maintaining sheep for wool. The tanning business also depended on the rearing of animals. Many of the implements of everyday life were made of leather including harnesses, straps, belts, shoes, clothing, saddlebags and bookbindings.

The Blake House became the primary focal point of a very comfortable and well-to-do 91-acre estate that included a 10-acre home farm with at least two outbuildings and orchard, yards and garden. Deacon James Blake held public office, becoming a constable, town selectman, and deputy to the General Court as well as a pillar of the First Church, serving as Deacon for 14 years and later Ruling Elder for about the same length of time.

In 1700 the house passed to James and Elizabeth's son John, who in turn bequeathed it to his two sons, John and Josiah, in 1718. The estate was settled by subdivision in 1748, and from that time the east and west halves of the house were occupied by separate families for over a century, one half being sold out of the Blake family in 1772 to a neighboring Clap relation. Over the course of time, the house and surrounding land was used for agriculture, for a spinning and weaving shop, and for a tanning business.

The 1748 division plan shows the first known illustration of the Blake House

In 1825 Caleb and Eunice (Clapp) Williams purchased the west half of the house from Rachel Blake, the sole surviving heir, and in 1829 they acquired the east half by inheritance. The house remained in the Williams family until 1892 when it was acquired by George and Antonia Quinsler who in 1895 sold it to the City of Boston.

The City government acquired the land to complete a large parcel for the building of municipal greenhouses and to widen Massachusetts Avenue as a complement to Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, which included the creation of Columbia Road as a boulevard from Franklin Park to the South Boston waterfront.

The Dorchester Historical Society became interested in saving the James Blake House when it became clear that the house was to be demolished. The 1895-96 move and restoration of the Blake House was an historically significant project in the Richardson Park section of Dorchester, which was just then becoming rapidly urbanized, with new street widenings, new streetcar lines, the creation of new parks, the building of Columbia Road, and new landmarks including new churches. Patriotic feelings associated with the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, combined with growing interest in America's history and the development of new architectural styles that were built upon American motifs, resulted in a frenzied interest in the Colonial Revival. The 1890s preservation and restoration of the colonial Blake House was undertaken with great care and devotion and has become historically and architecturally significant in itself, demonstrating the Colonial Revival interpretation of First Period architecture.

The Society convinced the City to grant the Society the house and the right to move it to Richardson Park at its own expense. By January, 1896, the house had been moved to its new location by a local building mover for $295. This seems to be the first recorded instance of a historic private residence being moved from its original site in order to rescue it from demolition. The Blake House is a museum of early American Home construction and is studied by students of architectural history.

Postcard circa 1920

Twenty-First Century Restoration

By the year 2000 the oldest existing house in Boston, the James Blake House required major repairs, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission awarded a grant for exterior renovations. The Dorchester Historical Society employed preservation consultant John Goff of Historic Preservation and Design to prepare a Historic Structures Report on the history, architecture and preservation needs of the Blake House, which was built in 1661, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Report is a wonderful tool, bringing the history of the house and its surroundings into one volume and identifying the extensive and essential restoration work required to bring this ancient house into a historically accurate and weather-tight condition. The report was the cornerstone of the grant application to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

In consultation with John Goff and the Massachusetts Historical Commission the Dorchester Historical Society found Jerry Eide of Hilltown Restoration, to take on the carpentry and masonry portions of the projects. The repair of the leaded-glass was completed by Glenn Shalan from North Adams. The project was completed in June, 2007.

  

The Society received awards from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Boston Preservation Alliance for its work on the Blake House.

Dendrochronology 

The Massachusetts Historical Commission also funded the extraction and testing of cores from beams in the building to determine the age of the house. The results of the test showed that the trees from which the timbers were hewn were felled in the winter of 1660-1661, giving a fairly-certain construction date of 1661.

Ground-Penetrating Radar

In 2007 Allen Gontz of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences at UMass Boston performed a Ground Penetrating Radar survey of the Blake House property. It was known that a pond once filled the area in front of the Blake House where Columbia Road and Pond Street intersect. The survey found an edge of the early pond in the front yard of the Blake House.

Archaeological Dig

Blake House caretaker Ellen Berkland, then the city's archaeologist, performed an archaeological dig and found a huge number of artifacts and a truncated shell midden, providing evidence of a Native American presence at the site.

Read about the archaeological excavation at the Blake House here!