Architectural History

Adapted from works by Robert H. Nylander

Jason Russell HouseThe house that Jason Russell built had four rooms, with the chimney and stairs in the center. In order to have at least part of the front face south, in the New England tradition, it was necessary to place the house with its end toward the Concord Road. There was a barn to the southwest of the house and an ell, probably at the back.

In the spring of 2012, the Historical Society commissioned the Oxford Dendrochonolgy Labs to perform tests on the wooden structural timbers in the house, in order to ascertain the precise date of construction.  Dendrocrochonology, or the science of dating wood samples to the year, and often season that a tree was felled, is the most accurate means of finding a construction date for a colonial structure, since commonly buildings were constructed with “green” timbers, or timbers recently cut down.  Results by Dr. Daniel Miles of Oxford University indicate that the majority of the timbers used to construct the house were felled inthe spring of 1683/84–consistent with a house-building campaign of Jason Russell (1), son of William Russell of Cambridge, and grandfather of Jason Russell (2), the patriot who died on April 19th, 1775.  However, a single red oak tie beam dated to ca. 1745, suggesting that the house had been reconstructed, with very extensive re-use of timbers from the earlier, 1683/84 structure.  This is a highly unusual result.  In fact, the testing team, who have examined more than a hundred houses in the US alone, have never before found a house like the Jason Russell house.  Comparing the probate indices of both Jasons (grandfather and grandson), and scientific results of the timber dating, it is clear that the house was built in a single building campaign, some time between 1740-1750, with the majority of the timbers (all sawn in a sawmill, not pit sawn or hand hewn) coming from the earlier structure.  This is consistent with granddaughter Lydia’s account of her grandfather Jason’s house having been built in 1745.

In keeping with the Georgian style of the period, there are five windows across the front on the second story, with the door in the center of the first floor, flanked by two windows on each side, and the large chimney in the center of the pitched  and gable-ended roof. Hence, the front of the house demonstrates the balanced symmetry of the Georgian order. Within are four rooms, and instead of the more usual rear lean-to, Jason Russell’s house had a large one-story ell, although his descendants added a lean-to later. Federal period additions were made by Jason’s son Noah ca. 1814, including the projecting front porch, interior finishes, and window alterations.

Kitchen FireplaceThe kitchen had a large fireplace on the north wall, a window and a door to the farmyard on the south wall, and two windows on the front. The outside walls may have been plastered originally, but in 1924, when the house was restored, wood sheathing was installed. The original floor was replaced with the present one in 1863.

The most outstanding feature of the room is the unplastered ceiling, which is whitewashed and has black sponge painting. This form of decoration is generally considered to be the earliest form of interior painting in New England, dating from before 1725. Some bills in connection with the Province House in Boston, however, for “whitewashing and spotting kitchen” in 1737, 1738, and 1739, show that it was still popular for such rooms when Jason Russell built his house. The “Old Adams House,” which stood in Arlington center until 1855, also had a form of sponge painting in the front entry, which was brought up to date probably in the 1750’s or 1760’s. The house itself was a century older.

Whitewashed ceilingThe room above is simply sheathed and has a whitewashed, unplastered ceiling. There is nothing else to distinguish it except the scribblings of generations of Russell children on the panels over the fireplace. The tie beam in this room is red oak and dates to ca. 1745.

The stairs and entry are simple. The stairs rise in three wide runs with just a handrail and no balusters. There was originally a cellar door leading from the first-floor entry, but it has been closed perhaps by Jason Russell himself, in favor of the one in the kitchen.

The two north rooms, originally the parlor and parlor chamber, have paneled fireplace walls with handsome bolection moldings; the ceilings are plastered, possibly a later decorative addition, and the second-floor room has no wooden baseboard. The window embrasures are deep, and are somewhat larger than the actual window. They were plainly finished at first. Both rooms have ample closets beside the fireplaces.

The kitchen summer beam has a bold chamfer and the stops have been removed.  It has clearly been reused from another building. Elsewhere, when beams were finished at the corners, a crude bevel chamfer was used. Until well into the nineteenth century, the southern rooms were unplastered. The north rooms were plastered at some point, and the corner posts cased in, from the start.

The old ell is framed similarly to the main house. It has been so changed that it is impossible to determine its original appearance, or even original location, with any certainty. From the placement of the studs, it is apparent that it had windows about the size of the attic windows on the main house.

Sometime later in the nineteenth century a lean-to and a large ell, with a front door facing the main street, were added to the west of the house, the lean-to probably about 1850 and the ell about 1863. The old south door to the farmyard was sealed up in one of these alterations. Most of the present exterior finish on the original house dates from this period, although the window frames are of the eighteenth century . Federal moldings were applied to these frames about 1814 and they have been re-sashed. At the time of the last of these alterations the house was painted white, the only color it is known to have been painted while the Russell family was living in it. (Jason Russell probably did not paint it) and green blinds were hung at the windows.

Through the settling of the estates and through sale, Jason Russell’s original farm was reduced in size from the 40 acre plot (part of a 119 acres that Jason Russell owned as his farm). In 1883 Lydia Teel divided the remaining land, “Jason Russell’s orchard” as she called it, among her children, giving the old house to her son Thomas Russell Teel. She also had a road laid out in front of the house, and this was accepted by the town as Jason Street in 1884. Mrs. Teel died in 1886

Russell Teel tore down the old barn and further altered Jason Russell’s original ell. Part of it was used for a while as a smokehouse. At his death, in 1896, the house passed out of the family, and a subsequent owner moved it partly off its original foundations to install a furnace. The original chimney was lost in the process of moving and part of the 1863 ell, but otherwise the house was retained intact. In 1923 this and several other houses in Arlington were endangered by demolition threats, and the Arlington Historical Society wisely chose to purchase and save Jason Russell’s house over the less preserved of the threatened houses.

Take an online tour of the Jason Russell House.

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