TEXT BY BRIAN KEVIN, KATE LADSTATTER, SARAH STEBBINS, AND EMMELINE WILLEY
In a 1640 letter to his father, deputy governor Thomas Gorges described his new home in what is now York as “much like your barne, only one pretty handsome roome…without glasse windowes…” Ye olde English snobbery aside, Gorges’s assessment was probably fair. Maine’s earliest European settlements consisted of timber-framed, one- or one-and-a-half-story structures of dubious permanence, as illustrated in a 1648 account of a York parsonage with clay chimneys: “Mr. Godfrey…keeps a very good howes…with 3 chimneys…if 2 of them blowe not down this winter, wich may be feard, being but the parsons howes.” Indeed, nails, bricks, glass, and other materials needed to make sound structures were scarce — so much so, that people would take their doors and windows with them when they moved.
Our oldest surviving buildings, designed with solid, squared logs to serve as defensive retreats during attacks by indigenous people or adversarial settlers, date to the early 1700s. Known as “garrisons,” though they were not military barracks, these embody a colorful myth perpetuated by 18th-century writer Edward E. Bourne, who claimed the dwellings’ projecting upper stories existed to allow owners “to turn down hot water on any assailants, and to extinguish fire if they should attempt to burn the garrison.” Alas, the overhang was merely a by-product of the joinery used to attach the second floor.
Clapboarded, center-chimney Capes derived from English farm cottages were another hallmark of the Colonial period, which also saw classical Roman-inspired Georgians — named for kings George I–III — starting around 1720. Post-revolution, delicately styled iterations with diverse ornamentation went by the more PC moniker, Federal.
According to Maine Historic Preservation Commission director Kirk Mohney, 187 of these early buildings, erected before Maine became a state in 1820, are on the National Register of Historic Places; dozens more double-centenarians exist in historic districts or under the NRHP’s radar. In honor of Maine’s bicentennial, we consulted with Mohney and state historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. to assemble this striking collection of historic photos of some of the Pine Tree State’s 200-plus-year-old homes. The result? A rare window into the landscape our ancestors helped shape.
John Watson House, Hiram, 1785
After a flood destroyed John Watson’s first house on the Saco River, the Revolutionary War vet built this residence in what was then a little-settled wilderness. A simple frame construction covered in clapboards, Hiram’s oldest intact home is a typical example of utilitarian late-Georgian architecture, with five-bay symmetry and a hipped roof (and a large central chimney — rare on a hipped roof from this period, when double chimneys were more common). The Federal-style doorway probably dates to an early-19th-century renovation. Watson’s descendants still occupied the house when this photograph was taken around 1890 — they finally sold it in the early 1930s.
McIntire Garrison, York, 1707
Built by the family of a Scottish prisoner of war deported to the colonies by the government of Oliver Cromwell, this may be Maine’s oldest home. It’s certainly one of the most conspicuous remaining examples of the garrison style that characterized houses across New England in the 17th century. The two-and-a-half-story, gabled-roof structure was originally constructed from sawn lumber — sturdy logs dovetailed at the joints for weatherproofing and protection against Native American raids. Shingles and clapboards were added during an early-20th-century restoration that also removed the addition shown in this 1885 photo.
Read more about the McIntire Garrison here.
Lady Pepperrell House, Kittery Point, 1760
Lady Mary Pepperrell brought English craftsmen overseas to construct this high-style Georgian home in memory of her husband, Kittery-born colonial merchant, soldier, and land baron Sir William Pepperrell. Its hipped roof, central hall, and double fireplaces at the north and south ends are typical of the English-derivative architecture found around the Piscataqua region at the time. A central pedimented pavilion adorned with fluted Ionic pilasters and a bracketed cornice above the doorway foreshadows the ornate woodwork inside. Decades after this 1903 photograph was taken, an owner inscribed “1760” on the pediment.
Read more about the Lady Pepperrell House here.
John Perkins House, Castine, circa 1763
Pictured here in a circa 1920 postcard, the John Perkins House — one of the first frame homes built in Castine — has seen its share of drama. It survived the British bombardment of the town in 1779 and quartered British soldiers during both the American Revolution and War of 1812. The original home, a single-story, was torn down and rebuilt as a two-story with an ell in 1783. In 1968, the collapsing building was dismantled, moved about a mile, and restored (minus most of the ell, which had rotted) on the grounds of Castine’s Wilson Museum, which has fitted the interior with period furnishings and offers tours.
Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Portland, 1786
General Peleg Wadsworth, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s granddad, finished construction on Portland’s first brick building in 1786, on what’s now Congress Street. At the time, it had a view of the harbor, but the city has since grown up around it. It’s a sturdy place, its walls 16 inches thick and bricks laid in the style known as Flemish bond, their short and long sides facing outward in an alternating pattern. The third story, seen in this circa 1880 photo, was added after a chimney fire destroyed the original roof in 1814. Today, the Maine Historical Society offers tours of rooms filled with furnishings and artifacts from several generations of Wadsworths and Longfellows.
Black Horse Tavern, Belfast, 1795
When it opened in 1800, this unassuming little Cape on Route 1 was the first tavern on the east side of the Passagassawakeag River in Belfast. Revolutionary War vet Jerome Stephenson built the post-and-beam as his home in the mid-1790s before opening a portion of it as a public house. The interior retains many original details, including pine wainscoting and two large fireplaces with original mantels. These days, the house, now privately owned, no longer has the louvered shutters seen in this 1905 postcard.
Reverend Jeremiah Jewett House, Alna, early 19th century
Settlers started damming the Sheepscot River in the mid-1700s, and by century’s end there were so many mills in the village of Head Tide that the town around it was christened New Milford. It was renamed Alna by the time the town’s minister, Jeremiah Jewett, built this two-and-a-half-story Federal. Its double chimneys are typical of the genre, as are the arched doorways on the one-and-a-half-story ell, shown in this circa 1933 photo. The parsonage, as it was called in Jewett’s day, features decorative paneling and moldings inside. Today, it’s part of a Head Tide Historic District that includes the Congregational church where Jewett once preached.
Nickels-Sortwell House, Wiscasset, 1807
Driving through downtown Wiscasset, you can’t miss this Federal grande dame. When ship captain William Nickels built the place in 1807, it was a conspicuous testament to his family’s wealth, with four Corinthian pilasters rising two stories and an elegant lunette window on the third floor. But the Nickels family soon fell on hard times, and the house was sold in 1814. It was an inn for the rest of the 19th century, until industrialist Alvin Sortwell purchased and restored it, removing the added porch seen in this 1885 photo, and incorporating Colonial Revival furnishings. If you’d like to see them, Historic New England leads tours and offers the house as a vacation rental.
Parker House, Blue Hill, 1816
Built for Robert and Ruth Parker, scions of one of Blue Hill’s founding families, this imposing dwelling was originally constructed in the Federal style, with a hipped roof edged in ogee and dentil moldings, twin brick chimneys, and a central hallway. In the early 1900s, Blue Hill native and accomplished Boston architect George A. Clough updated the house in the Colonial Revival style, notably adding three columned porches not seen in this late-19th-century photo. Want a peek at the antique furnishings inside? You can book the Parker House on Airbnb. With four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, it accommodates 10.