James Blake House - Oldest in Boston

by jptanabe

The historic neighborhood of Dorchester in Boston, Massachusetts is home to the James Blake house. Built just over 350 years ago, it is the oldest house in Boston.

Walking around Dorchester on our way to breakfast after helping our daughter move into her new apartment, we encountered this old house with a plaque that said "James Blake House 1661 - the oldest house in Boston." I'd never heard of it before, the only James Blakes I've heard of are a tennis player and a British musician, both still alive so I was pretty sure neither of them built a house in 1661!

I took these photos, saw that it wasn't open, and (being hungry for breakfast!) I decided to move on and look it up when I got home. With a bit of research I found out it has a rather interesting story.

Photos © copyright Jennifer P. Tanabe 2013.

Photos of James Blake House in Dorchester, MA

James Blake House
James Blake House
James Blake House Plaque close up
James Blake House Plaque close up
James Blake House in Dorchester, with plaque
James Blake House in Dorchester, with plaque

Dorchester

Historic neighborhood in Boston

I stumbled upon the historic James Blake house while walking through Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston that has its own interesting history. 

It seems this area was settled by Puritans from Dorchester in England. They set sail in 1630 and founded their new town of Dorchester that year, a few months before the city of Boston was founded. Somehow I think the residents are still proud of that!

It remained a rural small town until being annexed to Boston in 1870. Then it grew rapidly and today is the largest and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Boston. From what I saw it certainly has an interesting collection of houses, old and new buildings, plenty of stores and cafes, and definitely a diverse population. Looks like the kind of place I would love to have lived in when I was younger! 

Location of James Blake House

Corner of Columbia Road and Pond Street in Dorchester

The James Blake House

I found out quite a lot about James Blake and his house. It seems he was born in Pitminster, England, in 1624, and his family emigrated to Dorchester in the 1630s. James married Elizabeth Clapp in 1651, and for a long time it was thought he had the house built for his new bride just before his marriage, around 1648.

The two-story house, with a central chimney and gable-roof, was constructed using a post-Medieval, timber-frame style of architecture. The homes of western England, where many of the settlers were from including his wife's family, had long used heavy timber-framing methods. This house is one of a relatively small number of this type surviving in New England. 

During his long life, he lived until 1700, Blake was prominent in the community. His house was prominent also. The rooms were illuminated with roof dormers and leaded-glass casement windows. Pretty special for the time!

The Clapp Pear

Near the James Blake house is Edward Everett Square, where we found a very interesting sculpture - of  a pear! This is a Clapp Pear, a type of pear developed by the Clapp family (I'm guessing relatives of James' wife Elizabeth). Their farm, dating back to 1633, was close to where Edward Everett Square is now located and they first cultivated this pear there in 1830. A cross between a Flemish Beauty pear and a Bartlett pear, the Clapp has a thick skin and sweet flesh. The bronze statue certainly has a thick skin!

Edward Everett Square Clapp Pear

Photo by Adam Pieniazek
Edward Everett Square Pear - 5
Edward Everett Square Pear - 5

Saving the house

The house has been restored more than once since James Blake's time. The latest restoration was quite ambitious, including restoration of the leaded-glass windows. I didn't notice them at the time, but if you look closely at the photo of the house you can see they have those special windows with small panes of colored glass. Next time I hope I can get a closer look! Apparently the Dorchester Historical Society, who own the house, do offer tours every third Sunday of the month. 

During this restoration project, dendrochronology testing of the wooden beams revealed the house was most likely built in 1661. That still makes it the oldest house in Boston, though!

Perhaps the most exciting story that relates to the survival of this house is that it had to be moved from its original location to avoid demolition! Back in 1895, when Massachusetts Avenue was being widened, it became apparent that the James Blake House stood in the path of progress.The Dorchester Historical Society decided to save the house. They came up with a plan to move the house to its current location, a whole 400 yards away, paying a local building mover $295 for the job. In January, 1896, the house was successfully moved to its current location in what seems to be the first recorded moving of a private residence to rescue it from demolition. Well done Dorchester Historical Society!

More about the James Blake house

To learn more about the James Blake house check out these sites:

Wizzley

Updated: 03/29/2016, jptanabe
 
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Veronica on 09/05/2015

Although life is easier in many ways, I do feel we have " lost " a lot in our progression . Life was harder then but they had their own style and elegance in their living, something we have lost sadly.

I am glad your daughter enjoyed it. I love to hear how the young enjoy history.

jptanabe on 09/05/2015

My daughter was able to take the tour inside recently - she said it's lovely in there!

Veronica on 09/05/2015

A superb house . Thank you or posting this and thanks also the historical society .And .. a house move in 1896 is incredible.

Long may it be preserved. I know how you feel about wanting to have lived there in the past.

jptanabe on 11/21/2013

Thanks for sharing about that opportunity. It would have been quite an experience I'm sure, perfect for a history teacher. But I do understand your bride's concerns.

William McDonough on 11/20/2013

Back in the 1960's, as a recently graduated history teacher, I was offered a great deal…to live in the Blake House for free, and in return I had to open the home to the public for just 5 or 6 hours on two different days of the week…I forget which days they were,but I believe Sunday afternoon was one of them.
Sadly,my recent Bride refused for two reasons, A.) we would have our new furniture in this home and she feared damage by visitors, and B.) The neighborhood was still a little scary, there was a chain link fence surrounding the house, tallest such fence I had ever seen,and it was topped by curled strands of looser razor wire.
My bride would have been there many hours without me, as I had an evening job, so we had to decline the job offer, which came from the Dorchester Historical Society as I recall. Nonetheless, whenever I drive by, I wonder what it wold have been like to live in the oldest house in Boston !

jptanabe on 11/13/2013

Thank you!

ologsinquito on 11/13/2013

Hi jp, I'm also pinning this to my "Thinks You Really Need to Know" board.

poutine on 11/09/2013

Very interesting piece. It makes me want to go and visit and walk around the area.

Poutine

jptanabe on 11/01/2013

Thanks. I agree, Boston is great for walking (much better than driving!)

Guest on 11/01/2013

jptanabe, Boston is one of my favorite places! It's a great walking city. I love the James Blake house; it's so "New England" with its weathered grey cedar shingle siding. Your nice tribute is interesting and transports me to this unique, historic city which is a great cultural mecca. Thank you.


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