Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER, SPRING 1998, Vol. 11, Issue 1

The Mabee House: Jewel of the Mohawk Valley

This issue of the Dutch Barn Newsletter is dedicated to the Mabee house in Rotterdam Junction New York. The house is the home of the Schenectady County Historical Association and is a fine example of 17th century Dutch Colonial Architecture in the Mohawk Valley. It is the hope and plan of the Schenectady County Historical Society to relocate a Dutch barn to this site within the next few years. In order to honor the initiative of this society to preserve Dutch culture we dedicate this issue to the Mabee House

An old photo of the Mabee Farm looking north. The Mabee house has the steep pitched roof at the left side of the photo. To the left of the house and extending off the photo is the summer kitchen. This photo provides a good view of the house and relative locations of the outbuildings. The Dutch barn shown and outbuildings no longer exist. Photo courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical Society.

A Brief Description of the Mabee House
By Christopher Albright

The Mabee House is located on the south side of the Mohawk River about eight miles west of the Stockade area of Schenectady on a tract of land that was known as the Third Flat. The Third Flat consisted of about 127 acres of low land that was originally settled by Daniel Janse Van Antwerp about 1670. Daniel Janse received a patent for this land in 1680 from Governor Andros. The house is believed to have been built during the period 1670-1680 by Daniel Janse. In 1706, the west half of the Third Flat consisting of about 63 acres was sold by Daniel Janse Van Antwerp to Jan Pieterse Mabee. The house remained in the Mabee family until being donated to the Schenectady County Historical Association by a descendant, George Franchere.

The house walls are constructed of stone and the gabled roof has a very steep pitch. The current dimensions of the stone portion of the house are 23 feet 9 inches by 35 feet 8 inches; however its original size was most likely 23 feet 9 inches square. The house was extended longitudinally to the southeast in the eighteenth century, sometime after Jan Pieterse Mebie purchased it from Van Antwerp. A jambless fireplace was on the northwest wall of the original single room house.

A wood and brick summer kitchen stands just west of the house and an all wood addition is attached to the northeast corner of the house. The summer kitchen and wood addition are constructed using Dutch timber framing methods. An original Dutch barn southeast of the house no longer exists.

Understanding the Mabee House Fireplace

An illustration drawn in 1769 in the Netherlands shows a kitchen interior with a jambless fireplace. From Bulletin KNOB/volume 84/numbers 2 and 3/June 1985, 53.

By Shirley Dunn
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the European-style "hung" or jambless fireplace was common in counties of the Hudson Valley, in the Mohawk Valley and environs, on Long Island,. in New Jersey, and in other places where the Dutch and Germans settled in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This open type of fireplace characterized the Mabee House in Rotterdam Junction which is the subject of this issue of the Newsletter.

Madame Sarah Knight, a New England woman visiting some Dutch style houses in New York in 1704, wrote, "The fireplaces have no Jambs (as ours have) But the Backs run flush with the walls, and the Hearth is of Tyles. . . and the piece over where the mantel tree should be is made as ours with Joyners work. . . ." In 1748, Peter Kalm, a Swedish traveler passing through the Albany region, whose diary was published as Peter Kalm's Travels in North America, noted that "the fireplaces among the Dutch were always built in, so that nothing projected out, and it looked as though they made a fire against the wall itself."

Another traveler, Rev. Samuel Chandler, while visiting Albany in 1755, reported that "The Dutch chimneys have very small jambs with 3 or 4 rows of Tile. Some no Jambs at all." Kalm had noted that "In Albany the fireplaces had small sides projecting out about six inches made of Dutch tiles with a white background and blue figures." The occasional small jambs were merely decorative and not structural; thus, there was no conflict in the accounts.

A further description of the jambless fireplace was given by Kalm. As he explained with regard to the small wooden houses which he was seeing north of Albany, "The fireplace for about six feet or more from the ground consisted of nothing more than the wall of the house which was six to seven feet wide and made of brick only. There were no projections on the sides of the fireplace, so it was possible to sit on all three sides of the fire and enjoy the warmth equally."

He continued, ". . .Above, where the chimney began, the bricks rested upon rafters and cross beams on three sides which had been arranged so as to support them. As the chimney was some distance above the floor, they had put boards about these rafters, or as was more common, they had hung short curtains extending downward to prevent the smoke from coming in... The hearth itself was always even with the floor. The fireplace was ordinarily six to eight feet in width. Occasionally a shelf had been made above it upon which teacups, etc. were placed." Peter Kalm explained that there were no dampers in the chimneys and that the fire burned during the winter all day, both in the houses in the towns as well as in the country.

This type of fireplace was used both for cooking and warmth. An iron fireback was set behind the fire to prevent the back wall from cracking, as bricks and stones will do in time. Notice that no oven is mentioned in any of the travelers' descriptions. The Dutch-American cook or her servants generally baked in utensils over coals on several locations on the hearth. [See illustration.] Ovens, when they existed, were located separately.

As Kalm noted, the weight of the chimney was borne above the first floor, on the beams (joists) crossing the room and on trimmers (supplementary framing). In the garret or attic above rose the broad brick chimney, tapering to the ridge. There was no fireplace in the attic, which was intended for storage. Neither was there usually a fireplace in the cellar. Because the chimney began above the fire, only a small support under the hearth was needed in the cellar.

There was more than one way to support the hearth. In earlier houses, when the cellar was not the full size of the house, the hearth rested on the ground, as it might have in the Netherlands, where cellars were not common. The hearth resting on the ground was the case with the original jambless fireplace in the Mabee House. As full, deep cellars became the norm, a half-arch of brick or a cradle of thick planks underpinned by a few light beams was used to support the hearth area above.

The brick half-arch or wooden cradle was inserted between a projecting rock ledge included half-way up the cellar wall (or a narrow ledge carved in the cellar wall,) and the first joist in the cellar. The cradle or half arch could not fall down unless the joist twisted. The cradle or half-arch was framed above by trimmers which were part of the cellar framing. The open sides were boarded in. The resulting triangular space was filled with stones and gravel, topped perhaps with sand on which to level the hearth tiles.

There was third element to the jambless fireplace, the hood over the hearth. This was suspended from a large beam (joist) and the trimmers over the first floor. In the Jean Hasbrouck House at New Paltz, where an eighteenth century jambless fireplace survives, the fireplace hood rests on a timber frame. The timber frame is supported in the stone wall which forms the back of the fireplace, and is suspended on the front from wooden hangers attached to the joist. Above its wooden frame the hood is made of bricks, one brick thick, which run up to join the bricks of the chimney. The hood bricks have been given a coat of plaster inside and out. A deep crown molding or cornice, attached to the front and sides of the hood, holds a shelf. Plates have been set on the mantel shelf and printed cloth is hung along the bottom to catch smoke.

Some hoods shown in old Dutch paintings do not fit this description. Unfortunately, there are few paintings done in America which show early fireplaces. However, from the fragments of jambless fireplaces that remain in houses, it is clear there was variation among the hoods. They reflected style, height of ceilings, and location in the room. Although some hoods were constructed with bricks, others were made of boards or were merely cloth hangings.

The original Mabee House and its kitchen addition each had a jambless fireplace. Moreover, there was a jambless fireplace in the separate summer kitchen. Although all have been altered or removed, the Mabee complex retains valuable evidence of the forms of jambless fireplaces. The hearth in the original house was supported by a bank of earth, intentionally left in place when the cellar was constructed. This technique suggests the house was built in the late seventeenth century before full cellars became common. Fortunately, when the original fireplace later was removed, the sides and front of the cornice used for the mantel were carefully stored in an attic and preserved until the present. This mantel cornice is a rare survival. (See illustration of the profile of the molding.)

Because the first floor ceiling was relatively low, the hood of the Mabee fireplace apparently consisted of a set of three boards, only one board in depth, suspended from the overhead beam and trimmers. On the board was mounted the cornice molding. Shadow marks and a single board remain as evidence of the construction. This hood likely did not contain bricks as did the deeper hoods of some other houses.

Considerable information about jambless fireplaces exists. Parts of jambless fireplaces persist widely in pre-1755 buildings in Dutch areas. Surviving cellar arches or cradles, the ceiling and cellar framing, and the stones or shelf in the cellar wall, as well as tell-tale shadow marks on beams and in attics, attest to their former presence, as in the Mabee House. In addition, travelers described them, and jambless fireplaces were mentioned in building contracts and in other documents.


Profile of the cornice which formed the mantel on the jambless fireplace in the original part of the Mabee House. Drawing by Peter Sinclair, April, 1998.





Drawings are from Historic American Building Survey (HABS) of Mabee house floor plan. Click to enlarge.

The Mabee House is shown in a picture probably dating from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. A slight change in the roof line at the ridge can be seen above the right roof dormer. This identifies where the eighteenth century addition began. The original house is to the left. An early door was located at the window at left. The wooden porch is a late addition. Photo courtesy of the Schenectady County Historical society.

NEWSLETTER, SPRING 1998, Vol. 11, Issue 1 Part Two

The Dutch Barn Preservation Society

c/o The Mabee Farm Historic Site
1080 Main St. (Rt. 5S)
Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150

Site Phone: (518) 887-5073



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