Lords of the Rings

Basic science sheds new light on this old house.

By Wayne Curtis

Dwight-Barnard
Dwight-Barnard House, Deerfield, MA

Credit: Jeffery Howe

When Paul Krusic knocks on the door of a colonial house in New England, the owners tend not to be overly receptive. That's because Krusic, a climate researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, travels with a drill equipped with an outsized bit. He isn't terribly interested in the house's chamfered edges or how the roof was framed or why the builders opted for a fanlight instead of sidelights around the front door. Thinking of the ancient oak timbers inside the walls, he is hoping to go inside and begin drilling holes.

Krusic's job is to reconstruct the climates of eras past, and the timbers in a very old house—particularly the way their tree rings are patterned—can tell him much. Some of the houses that Krusic has encountered were made from trees that germinated before Columbus left Spain and were harvested before tea went into Boston's harbor. Last spring, the ell of a 1752 house outside Hartford was found to have been built with oak timbers that germinated sometime in the 1400s. And a house in New York's Hudson River valley, it turns out, has timbers dating back to 1449. "We envision homes as remnants," says Krusic. "They're what's left of our precolonial forests." In those scattered vestiges of ancient woodlands, Krusic looks for fingerprints the weather left behind.

As a result of this work, climate researchers have arrived at some striking conclusions about regional weather in the past. Architectural historians, keen to know exactly when America's oldest houses were built, have been using the techniques as well. After all, the impressive brass plaques seen on so many early houses are often the result of educated guesswork. The science of dendrochronology, the dating of trees by the careful analysis of their rings, is changing all that—and leading to some surprising, even revolutionary discoveries. A great many houses, it turns out, are not as old as previously thought.

"For me, dendrochronology has been a disaster, and I mean a real disaster," says Abbott Lowell Cummings, who at 83 years old is the dean of early American architecture. "Architectural history is going to have to be rewritten. There's no question about that now."  

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