The False Plate: Our Connection to the 1600’s

By Executive Director Carter Lively

It’s hard to explain why our roofs and their underlying structures have presented us with so many challenges. The answer lies not at the time of construction in the 1770’s, but before that when the colonists in Maryland and Virginia were trying to build their first houses in the 1600’s.

Imagine the lush 17th century wilderness with lots of trees ready to be cut down for your house. You know how to cut trees down; it’s what follows that’s the challenge. You remember what houses in your village in England looked like and how they were built. So what do you do next?

One of the first things you realize is that you have to build your house quickly – unless you like sleeping in the rain or shivering in the snow. You also know that feeding your family depends on successfully growing and harvesting a crop of tobacco and that this takes up most of your time. Therefore you have to build your house in the short time you have before winter, plus you have to be very mindful not to let your construction interfere with the cultivating, harvesting, and selling of your tobacco.

So do you try to copy the English houses you remember? It sounds logical, but it isn’t for one huge reason. There are not enough skilled carpenters or masons in the Chesapeake region to build an English house.

The reason you need a carpenter is because they know how to cut down trees, shape them, and join the timber together by a rather complicated system. These trees are now beams, posts, and rafters, and they will make up the skeletal structure of your English house. You also have to put this structure on a foundation of stones or bricks so it won’t rot or get eaten by termites.

You might be able to cut down the trees and shape them after a hard day’s work picking off tobacco hornworms, but the one thing you probably can’t do is create the complicated joints needed to hold together the big timbers. This is the work of skilled carpenters and they are practically non-existent in the wilds of the Chesapeake frontier. So what do you do?

What you do is build what your neighbors have built, which is commonly known as a Virginia house. So what is a Virginia house?

The Virginia house is a small one-room house which is built of relatively small posts (verticals) and small beams (horizontals) with a roof of small rafters (diagonals) and covered with small pieces of wood called clapboards. How is this Virginia house different from an English house?

The answer is that a Virginia house is puny, insubstantial, and is going to rot quicker than the standard 17th century English house. So why would anyone want to build a house like this?

The answer is that it’s quick to build, it’s not going to take you away from your precious tobacco crop, and the small posts, beams, and rafters can be nailed or pegged together without the need of a carpenter. It is also very much cheaper to build than a proper English house which means the money you save can be used to buy that prime tobacco-growing property next door. So what does this have to do with the Hammond-Harwood House roof which was built roughly 200 years later?

This also takes some explanation, so bear with me a little longer. The Virginia house was built by sticking posts directly into the dirt and then by putting a beam across the tops of the posts. This beam is called a plate and this is what the roof is attached to. The walls are held together at the top by horizontal beams called cross ties if they are big or joists if they are small. These keep the long parallel walls from falling inward or outward and create the base of the strong triangle that the roof covering rests on. Now we are getting to the crux of the matter!

In building the English house large posts, large plates, large cross ties and joists, and large rafters are held together with complex joints which in the 17th century were almost solely the work of a carpenter. In the Virginia house the rafters are not nailed directly onto the plates; the cross ties and joists go over the plates and stick out to create an eave on both sides of the house. The tops of these cross ties and joists that stick out provide the Virginia house builder with a place onto which a smaller flat plank – not a big beam – can be nailed to create a flat surface onto which you can nail the ends of the rafters. This means that you can use smaller (common) rafters rather than the much larger (principal) rafters used in the proper English house.

Essentially the difference between the English house and the Virginia house is – aside from the size of the wooden parts and the clapboard covering – the way the bottoms of the rafters connect to the walls of the house. The Virginia house system uses a flat timber plank which is laid on the tops of the joists that are sticking out from the tops of the walls. This new flat plate is called a false plate and is distinct to the architecture of the colonial Chesapeake.

So how does this relate to the Hammond-Harwood House’s roof? The answer is that the false plate becomes an integral part of colonial building in the Chesapeake region and continues to be used even when buildings become very complex and more like contemporaneous buildings in England. It reminds me of the coccyx bone in the human body because it’s a vestige of a skeletal past that remains even after its usefulness is gone.

Now in our case we have brick walls and a light (common) roof structure sitting on top of them. If this house had been built in London in 1774 it would have a principal roof of stout wooden parts with sturdy rafters which would connect directly to robust horizontal plates, but it wasn’t built in London, it was built here in Annapolis and it was built with a slight yellow pine roof structure with a false plate. The Hammond-Harwood House has stout 6 x 8 plates and puny 3 x 3 3/4” rafters that are nailed directly into a 1 1/4” x 9 3/8” false plate which is nailed to short stubby outriggers which are in turn dovetailed into the plates. This, combined with the substitution of outriggers for cross ties, has caused the majority of challenges that we have had to deal with in the wings of the Hammond-Harwood House.

What has happened in our case is that the weight of the roofs – wood, metal and slate – has caused the rafters to push down on the false plate, which in turn has lowered at its outer extremity causing the stout plates to rotate outward and causing the lower points of the rafters to rise away from the false plate and expose their nails.

Our challenge has been to take the weight off the roof structure, so that the plate will not roll outwards and make the tip of the rafter come up and away from the outrigger. This situation occurs because our vestige of the Virginia House – the false plate – has been applied where another form of roof to wall connection would have been a better choice.

A gap is visible where the false plate has separated from the outrigger.

The roof structure of the Hammond-Harwood House, with a visible gap where the false plate has separated from the outrigger

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Caring for Your Collections

It seems like everyone collects something – heirloom furniture, baseball cards, vintage purses… Sometimes it’s a purposeful process and sometimes you look around the house and realize that your possessions seem to have multiplied. At least, I do. Whether the collection is intentional or accidental, the outcome is usually the same: you have objects you care about, and you want to take good care of them. If this sounds familiar, I have good news for you – this year and next, the Hammond-Harwood House and City of Bowie Museums will be presenting new sessions of our Collector’s Corner workshop series.

Each workshop will cover the care of a different type of material; sessions on photographs, ceramics, glass, fine art, and paper and ephemera are all on the schedule.  We invite museum staff members and volunteers as well as anyone with their own collection to take advantage of this no-cost opportunity to learn modern, museum-sanctioned techniques for caring for their collections. More information and the workshop schedule are available on the Hammond-Harwood House website.

One of the many collections of glass owned by Henry Sleeper on display at Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House in Massachusetts

One of the many collections of glass owned by Henry Sleeper on display at Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House in Massachusetts

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These Will Keep Indefinitely

By Office Manager Jeanne Langdon

I was looking through the old Maryland’s Way cookbook to find something to bake, to help advertise the soon to be released 50th anniversary edition of the cookbook, when a sentence in one cookie recipe caught my eye: “These will keep indefinitely.” I thought of Patrick.

Patrick is a young Brit I met on a flight from Paris to Iceland last April. He was on his way to San Diego to begin a five-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. The PCT is the West Coast version of the Appalachian Trail, only the trail is longer, the mountains are bigger, and the gaps between sightings of civilization are much larger. I have hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, and I have known a couple of Georgia to Maine through-hikers, so I know how challenging that “easier” trail can be. The Pacific Crest Trail winds among some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and right past the place where the Donner Party met its fate. During the flight, Patrick explained about his preparations for hiking the trail: mailing boxes of provisions to himself at various post offices along the trail, and how he would be hiking “bonus miles” into town to retrieve them, and planning how much water he would have to carry for each segment of the trail and where it would be available. He told me about “trail angels,” volunteers who hike in to resupply water caches or bring hot meals to the places where hikers are likely to be camping. And finally, he gave me the web address of the blog that he would be writing along the way: pjgspct.blogspot.com

I have been following his blog since April, vicariously hiking the PCT. He has made it past the halfway point and is now in the Cascade Mountains in northern California. In late June, I made a batch of oatmeal cranberry cookies and put them in the mail so that I could be a trail angel, too. Oatmeal cranberry was the most popular of the cookies I sent to my husband’s coworkers in Afghanistan (“Open the box, John. We know what’s in the box.”). But getting cookies to a war zone was easy: I would put them in a special military shipping box on Monday and John would have them by Friday. This was different; I had to calculate how long a box would take getting to a remote town in California, correlate that with where Patrick said he was in his blog, and send it far enough ahead that he wouldn’t have passed by before the box arrived. Unfortunately, I miscalculated and sent them too far ahead, so the cookies were three weeks old when he caught up with them. Patrick didn’t complain though; he ate them all the same day.

Then I found the recipe in Maryland’s Way for Whiskey Nut Cookies, the one that said “these will keep indefinitely.” As the name implies, this simple shortbread cookie is made from ground pecans, with a healthy dose of whiskey (good Maryland Rye). I deviated from the recipe by refrigerating the dough overnight before rolling it out. The recipe calls for rolling the dough out “thin,” but since this is a shortbread cookie that doesn’t rise, I rolled it out to a little more than a quarter inch. The result was a rich, crumbly cookie with a distinct pecan flavor.

Now for the test. Will these cookies survive the trip to California and the wait at the post office? According to the author of the recipe, Augusta Tucker Townsend of Pendennis Mount, Severn River, these will keep indefinitely. The gauntlet has been thrown down…

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A Family Legacy (But No Muskrat, Please)

This week’s blog post is the first (but not last!) from new volunteer Katie Adams. 

By Volunteer Katie Adams

I have been reading through my mother’s old copy of the Maryland’s Way cookbook, which she (according to a note on the flypage) picked up during an “architectural tour of Annapolis” with friends in April 1964. I well remember her perusing it, not only for recipes but for the wonderful photos and sketches it contains. In fact, she would often become sidetracked for good periods of time between the wonderful recipes — luckily, she never tried Calf’s Brain Cakes or the notorious muskrat soup — and the book’s insights into Maryland’s past. Now that I have her book, for me it is history in several ways. It is my history, with the Sally Lunn and Old Auntie’s Whiskey Jumbles I remember well; my mother’s, since it was one of her “go-to” cookbooks and a reminder of an enjoyable day in Annapolis; a piece of Hammond-Harwood’s, since it happens to be one of the earlier editions; and of course a view into our beautiful state’s history as well. As Hammond-Harwood prepares to issue the 50th Anniversary Edition of Maryland’s Way this September at its annual Garden Party, I find myself interested to see the pretty new book next to my much-used yellowing one. I plan to try some recipes neither my mother nor I have tried, and know that I will enjoy spending time with the photos and anecdotes, but I think I will still give the recipe for peacock with chestnuts a miss.

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Historic Preservation Cheerleaders

We at Hammond-Harwood House think that old buildings are pretty special, and try to convince other people of that fact too. We appreciate it when someone else who feels the same way makes a clear, cogent argument for saving old houses. The Preservation Journey blog recently shared a short but sweet list of 6 reasons more Americans should care about saving old homes, which include the quality of old homes and the loss of history that comes with tearing them down. If you need some quick but useful points for your next argument about preservation, check out the original post here.

Drayton Hall in South Carolina, an excellent example of historic preservation (and an excuse for me to post a picture from my recent vacation)

Drayton Hall in South Carolina, an excellent example of historic preservation (and an excuse for me to post a picture from my recent vacation)

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Taking Another Look

It’s official: I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. Like Alice in Wonderland, I am lost in a swirling mass of information, unsure of where it will all end. Unlike Alice, however, I love every second of it.

You see, I have spent the past few days madly researching the Harwood family, trying to find information about the last residents of the Hammond-Harwood House so that we can include more details about their lives on our tours. This research is leading me every which way, from obituaries to property records. The most unexpected finding, and perhaps the most compelling, is the information I uncovered about Frances, or Fanny, Harwood. Frances was born in 1838 and lived here with her father William, mother Hester Ann, brother Richard, and sisters Lucy and Hester. That is, until sometime in the 1860s, when she was taken to the Maryland Hospital for the Insane.

When Fanny was first institutionalized, the hospital was located in Baltimore. It moved to Catonsville in 1872, and the Baltimore site was sold to Johns Hopkins. Fanny is listed as a patient at the Catonsville location on the 1880 Census, but her death record from 1896 says that she died and was buried in Baltimore. In 1910, she was reinterred in St. Anne’s Cemetery in Annapolis, and a headstone was erected for her and her sister Lucy. The Hospital is still operating, under the name Spring Grove, and its website has a wealth of historical information and images. I will let you know if I find any further details that illuminate Fanny’s life, but in the meantime, I’m left pondering the ways in which her mental illness must have affected her family.

The Maryland Hospital for the Insane in Catonsville, as it looked when Frances Harwood was a patient

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Secret Gardens

SGT 08 (3)It’s that time of year again! This weekend is our annual Secret Garden Tour from noon to 5pm Saturday and Sunday. Attendees will be able to tour 13 beautifully landscaped gardens within the heart of Annapolis’ historic downtown that are otherwise closed to the public. The tour this year features such historic gems as the Chase-Lloyd House, the Peggy Stewart House, and, of course, the Hammond-Harwood House. You don’t need to be an avid gardener to enjoy the sights and smells of these wonderfully maintained urban oases. Whether large or small, roses or hydrangeas, these gardens promise to be a special treat.

Tickets are still available. You can purchase them for the advance price of $25 by calling 410-263-4683 or by visiting our website. Please note that advance tickets end today, Friday, May 31 at 4pm. Tickets will be available at the Hammond-Harwood House (19 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD 21401) on Saturday and Sunday for $30. We hope you come smell the roses!

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