This Not-So-Old House
To Date Historic Homes, Owners Try Reading the Wood Rings; Meet the 'Dendrochronologist'
By KATHERINE ROSMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 8, 2005; Page W1
For Steve Nicklin, buying a rural estate called Bowling Green earned him the ultimate in historical-house bragging rights. The $750,000, 4,200-square-foot home not only had some of its original glass, floors and hardware intact, but records showed that George Washington had dined there, and that it had been built in 1669 -- making it one of the oldest houses in Virginia.
Just to be sure, Mr. Nicklin called for a professional opinion. Not an architect or residential genealogist, but a special technician who bored into a couple of beams with a hole saw -- only to determine that Bowling Green was 71 years younger than Mr. Nicklin had thought. "I would have loved it if it was built in 1669," says the advertising executive, who paid $2,000 for the service. "But I want to be accurate from a historical perspective."
Is your old house as old as you think? Thanks to a little-known science called dendrochronology, you can find out -- by hiring a technician who takes samples from your wood beams, then counts and measures the rings to determine when the wood was harvested. A technique originally used by researchers interested in astronomy and weather patterns, dendrochronology is catching on now with old-house buffs.
In Rensselaer, N.Y., the research firm Hartgen Archeological says 75% of its architectural history clients are homeowners wanting their homes "dendrodated"; five years ago, only a quarter of their historical work came from such clients. One geographer at the University of Tennessee fielded 10 requests to dendrodate private homes last year -- up from one request in 2002. Coming this spring in Massachusetts: a ring-counting symposium for the public that includes historians, architects and a "tavern dinner" with wood experts for $45.
The dendrodating movement is mostly being fueled by architecture-preservation types, primarily those in the South and Northeast whose homes are among the oldest in the country. Current consumer fascination with early American history and the Founding Fathers is also playing a role. But dendrochronologists -- earth scientists, historians and others trained in the technique -- say the trend has a lot to do with the cachet of owning an antique house. "It's very sexy to be able to know the exact year your house was built," says Walter R. Wheeler, an architectural historian in New York.
The only problem: Instead of proving a house is as old as its owner thinks, dendrodating in most cases shows buildings to be decades younger. Joanne and Emerson Tuttle, for example, had always thought their home in Ipswich, Mass., was built in the 1630s. Mrs. Tuttle says she was excited to learn from oral histories that the house -- two adjoining cottages -- might be the oldest in all the areas settled by the English. But when the Tuttles' home got a dendrochronology in December 2001, there was some harsh news: The house was built with wood cut in the 1670s.
"Disappointed?" says Mrs. Tuttle, without being asked to describe her reaction. "Of course I was."
Deane and Joan Kemper had a similar experience. The couple moved cross country, from San Francisco to Andover, Mass., five years ago after buying a house with a colorful past: Its original owner had accused a neighbor of witchcraft at the time of the Salem witch trials.
But during a dendrodating filmed by the PBS show "History Detectives," the Kempers in 2003 learned the house hadn't been constructed until 1711 -- well after the trials were over. By 2004, the couple had listed the house for $620,000 and relocated to South Carolina. "I think that had something to do with it," says Mrs. Kemper. "We live on a golf course here." The Kemper's new home was built in 1979. The Andover house is still for sale, at $449,000.
Dendrodating goes back to the turn of the last century when an astronomer in Flagstaff, Ariz., started looking into how weather and solar patterns were reflected in the ring patterns of trees. Archeologists have long used it too, to establish the age of everything from Native American ruins to antebellum homes. But it wasn't until the process proved workable in less arid climates that architectural historians started avidly applying dendrochronology to residences in the East.
Dendrodating is fairly straightforward, and not all that expensive -- about $2,000-$3,000 in most cases. (The University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in Tucson will run the test for as little as $250 if you bring in your own samples). The dendrochronologist uses a coring hole saw to extract a sample the diameter of a dime from a wood beam in the house. The rings on the core are then counted and measured, and their width mapped out so the dendrochronologist can compare the data to that of other trees in the region. (In case you slept through sixth-grade science, the more rain and sunlight a region gets in a year, the wider the tree rings. Rings also reflect trauma like fire and drought.) Getting the results takes weeks, or more.
But what sounds like an innocuous process is putting the scientists who embrace it out on a limb. Last year, University of Tennessee professor Henri Grissino-Mayer finished dendrodating Rocky Mount, a log-cabin complex long believed to have housed the territorial government before Tennessee was founded. Instead, Mr. Grissino-Mayer's testing showed that timber in Rocky Mount was felled between 1827 and 1830. That was at least 60 years later than thought, and suggested that the state government had been created elsewhere. (Gary Walrath, executive director of Rocky Mount Museum, says not all historians accept Mr. Grissino-Mayer's findings.)
In an earlier study, Mr. Grissino-Mayer concluded that a building in Cocke County, Tenn., long believed to have been used by settlers to hide from Cherokee Indians in the 18th century, was actually a pig sty built in 1860. "We're not very popular," he says.
It's a similar story in New Paltz, N.Y., where the Huguenot Historical Society is half-way through commissioning dendrodatings of nine structures and stone homes it owns in the area. The Jean Hasbrouck House, it turns out, was completed in 1721 -- not 1712 as long believed -- and was likely built by a son, not the family patriarch. Ditto for the Abraham Hasbrouck House -- the timeline now suggests the house was built by a son. The discoveries are causing some "head -scratching" among Hasbrouck descendants and other locals, says Susie Wilkening, a spokeswoman for the society, who thinks the affected buildings will eventually be renamed to reflect the actual builders. "It's going to take some getting used to," she says.
Having your house dendrodated rarely affects its market value, since the difference of a couple of decades one way or the other -- the typical dendrochronology age correction -- isn't enough to derail a sale, real-estate agents say. In fact, the historic home market has been so strong since the mid-1990s, the value of well-located historic homes is appreciating as fast as, or faster than, luxury homes in parallel markets, according to Joseph Carini, the president of a real-estate firm in Great Barrington, Mass.
Many homeowners like Dan Chaika in Newcastle, Maine, say they commission dendrochronologies just for the pleasure of knowing. While waiting for the results of a dendrodating ordered in November, Mr. Chaika is outfitting the 18th-century house with wireless Internet access and installing modern bathrooms and kitchen. "If only these guys 200 years ago knew what was in their house now," says Mr. Chaika.
Write to Katherine Rosman at email@example.com
There are dozens of specialists around the country who help homeowners learn the history of their homes and land. Below, a handful who perform everything from genealogical studies on buildings to dendrochronologies. Keep in mind that old deeds and tax records can be misleading -- just because a deed notes a structure sitting on your land in 1750 doesn't mean it's referring to your exact house:
MICHAEL WORTHINGTON AND DANIEL MILES, Oxfordshire, England
These dendrochronologists date structures throughout Great Britain and New England. They divvy travel expenses among customers.
NEIL LARSON, Woodstock, N.Y.
An architectural historian who has found several Hudson River Valley historic buildings to be a generation younger than thought. "Seventeenth century houses are dropping by the wayside," says Mr. Larson.
CAMILLE WELLS, Richmond, Va.
An assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Ms. Wells focuses on colonial homes in the Chesapeake Bay area -- and how their design and construction reflect upon the economy and culture of the time.
GREG HUBER, Macungie, Pa.
A barn specialist, Mr. Huber is working with a realtor in New York state who offers dendrochronology to historic home buyers.
KELSEY & ASSOCIATES, Washington/Baltimore
Prices range from $735 to $2,500 for services that include house histories, commercial-building histories and National Register of Historic Places application writing.
TIM GREGORY, Pasadena, Calif.
Mr. Gregory is partly known for his work preserving Janes Village, a historic neighborhood north of Pasadena. Mr. Gregory calls himself "The Building Biographer."