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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2001 > Hidden Spaces of Old Houses

Hidden Spaces of Old Houses

Sometimes the best view in the house is from the attic, as here at Hamilton House, South Berwick, Maine.


The tall framing of the monitor roof at the Quincy House, Quincy, Massachusetts, allows windows to light the rooms.


Accumulated boyhood miscellany transforms this attic room at Cogswell’s Grant, Essex, Massachusetts, into a time capsule of the mid twentieth century



Attics, like this one at the c.1687 Boardman House, Saugus, Massachusetts, commonly feature exposed structural framing and masonry, which provide important clues in dating historic buildings.




Graffiti are not often seen in attics, but they abound at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. This sketch of a two-masted brig under tow is one of three ship drawings and many names and dates scrawled on the attic sheathing.


Out of sight and overlooked, the hidden spaces of old houses conceal clues and curiosities. 

Lovers of old houses often find attics as appealing as fully furnished rooms. The simplicity and serviceability of attics, along with the secrets they reveal, offer different perspectives on the history of a house and its people. The attic at the c.1687 Boardman House, in Saugus, Massachusetts, for example, reveals the massive timber-frame construction that was a primary characteristic of late First Period structures. More importantly, a lean-to added across the rear of the house before the end of the seventeenth century created attic space that accidentally preserved for posterity a section of the original clapboards. Protected against the weather for two hundred years, they survive as one of the very few examples of original, unpainted, First Period oak clapboards in New England.

The attic at the c.1690 Spencer-Peirce-Little House in Newbury, Massachusetts, preserves a wonderful array of eighteenth-century graffiti. Added over the years to unpainted pine wall sheathing, they consist of names, initials and odd phrases, as well as three images of sailing ships. Very probably, the graffiti were made by farm laborers housed in the attic during the summer, who could have looked out the small attic window and watched ships as they proceeded down the Merrimack River and out to sea.

The 1770 Quincy House, in Quincy, Massachusetts, boasts an unusual monitor roof, the oldest known example of this roof style to survive from the original colonies. The attic comprises four small rooms, one with a fireplace, which were occupied by servants; even with windows and a fireplace, it must have been unbearably cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer. The most interesting story of this attic occurred during the American Revolution, while Josiah Quincy I was assisting George Washington by observing the movements of the British fleet in Boston Harbor from his attic windows. As he nervously watched, he scratched on a pane of glass in the attic, “October 10th 1775 Governor Gage saild for England with a fair wind.” That glass pane is now preserved and on view in the front hall of the house.

Sometimes the history of a house and family are revealed more by what is stored in the attic than by its physical structure or architectural elements. Such is the case at the Codman House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, home to five generations of the Codman family. When SPNEA received the house and its contents in 1969, a vast trove of family papers was discovered in the attic. Included in the neatly tied bundles were correspondence, financial records, legal papers, account books, bills, shipping papers, and more. These documents have proved invaluable to SPNEA’s research, understanding, and interpretation of the house.

SPNEA’s attics continue to tell stories into the twentieth century. At Cogswell’s Grant, in Essex, Massachusetts, summer home of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little and their children, an attic room survives like a time capsule of mid-century life. Dr. John Little remembers that when he was about nine years old, his parents offered him a room in the attic. Today, his room is frozen in time, including a wall calendar open to September 1947. When asked what he kept in his attic hideaway, Dr. Little laughs and says, “A little bit of everything,” pointing out a bottle of Vitalis hair cream, tennis balls, posters, and an old electric fan he calls “the air conditioning system.” During the summers that the Little family spent at Cogswell’s Grant, Dr. Little says he came to love his third-floor room—"There is something romantic about an attic."

—Diane Viera
Vice President, Marketing & Communications

Hidden Spaces of Old Houses