Passing by: The Defoe-Mooar-Wright House

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Postcard published by BW Hale, Williamsville, Mass., 1909

This postcard, from 1909, is the back view of the Defoe-Mooar- Wright House in Pownal, c. 1750, probably the oldest house in Vermont. A book could be written about the house. I cropped the view because I am only writing about the roof!

It shelters the original small four-room house: two rooms with fireplaces downstairs, two upstairs under the eaves. The roof was ordinary, a gable. The four windows on the right side belong to the original house. When a storage wing was added on the back the roof was extended to cover it. The slope of the new roof didn't match the first one; it wasn't quite as steep.

Soon the storage space became living space. It was a common way to grow a house just as today we enclose porches and sunrooms, expand into garages.

People considered such roofs normal. If they noticed that dramatic slope sweeping down from the high peak close enough to the ground to be touched, they didn't mention it. They called the additions "lean-tos."

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Fast forward to 1876: The United States celebrated its Centennial; we were 100 years old! America had a past. Old houses, so different from those the Victorians were building, were part of it. We began to distinguish one old house style from another, to name them. This roof reminded New England historians of the "salt boxes" with sloping lids which held salt in their kitchens. Historians in the South saw these roofs as "cat slides."

At the last Bennington Historical Society lecture someone asked when do we begin to notice that a building isn't just old, but worth looking at, worth preserving?

I think we see older houses anew when they are 80 to 100 years old — when they were built by people we didn't know. They aren't just old, not just nostalgic. We don't quite know what they are about. We have to consider why they look like that. We give them names so we talk about them with others.

The Defoe-Mooar-Wright House uses Dutch framing around an English layout. It has brick nogging. It faces the river, not the road. One of its fireplaces is in the basement. Its ownership history is not fully understood. Naming its roof a salt box is only the beginning.

Jane Griswold Radocchia is a Banner columnist.


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