A Bond Not Easily Broken

Lime mortar made with oysters

Photos, clockwise from left: Abandoned lime kiln in Virginia by Abandonedcountry.com, oyster shells in lime mortar by Jacqui Newling © HHT, oyster shell by BeaKez

So what was the “glue” with which the earliest settlers built their fieldstone homes?

Clay or clay mixed with chopped straw or animal hair would have been used to build the earliest foundations and interiors of chimneys, but this concoction would not have been strong enough to waterproof walls, fill gaps between stones and act as a cushion as walls settled. For that job, settlers needed lime, which when incinerated in a kiln and reduced to ash, was mixed with water and sand to create a superior mortar. The best sources of lime in early America? Natural lime deposits and seashells, whether combed off the beach or removed from an abandoned Native American rubbish heap (also called a kitchen midden).

So when we boil it all down, we may have both the land and the sea to thank for old stone homes.

The Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut by J. Frederick Kelly
Indiana Folklore: A Reader, edited by Linda Dégh
The Availability of Lime and Masonry Construction in New England: 1630-1733 by Paul B. Jenison

The Story of Stone and Early American Home Styles

An old stone home is a reflection of its builder’s heritage and masonry skills as well as the region in which it was built. Let’s explore materials and home style as we tour the earliest stone homes to appear along or near the East Coast of North America.

Region: New England

In the mid-1600s, the population of New England was primarily English, so home styles were pretty simple, stripped of ornamentation and timber-framed (timber being the most readily available material). Design had purpose: A pitched roof shed heavy snow loads and a central fireplace kept the home warm and cozy during cold New England winters. But not many stone homes. Why? Although fieldstone was plentiful (we know this by virtue of old dry-stacked stone walls that still exist throughout the region), the ingredients to make a good mortar were scarce. Rare examples appear where limestone was plentiful (primarily Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts) and took the form of what came to be coined “stone-siders”.

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Region: Central Hudson Valley and New Jersey

Moving on to the Hudson Valley, we see a slight change in style and construction. Dutch and Flemish settlers were more skilled in pairing materials, specifically fieldstone with brick, timber or both. To construct the earliest stone homes, settlers rough-cut stone and sandwiched it between layers of hair- or straw-bound clay to build walls that measured up to three feet thick. Lime mortar, fashioned from oyster shells or lime deposits, and finely masoned stones and intricately laid brickwork eventually replaced more primitive building materials.

Mount Gulian stone home

Photo: Mount Gulian by Howard Dale, Beacon, NY, red and brown sandstone construction, Dutch colonial style

Region: Delaware River Valley

Further south in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania, Swedish, Scots-Irish and German settlers initially built log structures. It was the German immigrants who truly put their stamp on the stone home design. The earliest structures featured steep roofs, central fireplaces and small square windows flush set against thick stone walls. Often, homes were built over springs that provided running water or into hillsides (hence the term “bank house”) that kept interiors cool during hot and humid summer months.

Hans Herr House old stone home in Lancaster County

Photo: Hans Herr House by Historyplaces, Willow Street, PA, sandstone construction, German colonial style

Early American Architecture by Hugh Morrison
The History, Science and Poetry of New England’s Stone Walls
Hudson Valley Architecture
Stone Houses of Eastern Pennsylvania
Architecture, Furniture, and Silver from Colonial Dutch America
Common Building Types: Houses, Agricultural Outbuildings, Mills