Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

Newsletter, FALL 1990, Vol. 3, Issue 2

The Plank Roof:
met planken
bequaem decken

By Shirley Dunn
Planks were a once-popular roofing material for houses, barns and sheds on early Hudson Valley homesteads. Use of this roofing is now nearly forgotten, but, occasionally, surviving plank roofs can still be found under later roofs or sheltered by additions.

For example, plank roofs have recently been identified on some Schenectady and Albany County Dutch barns. The Teller Barn of Schenectady had a plank roof when it was taken down some forty years ago. In addition, plank roofs remain in place on an early house in Schenectady and on one in Schodack, NY.

While undoubtedly they may remain on other structures, such roofs usually go unrecognized because they are covered with later materials and, most importantly, because the type has been forgotten. Present day owners may assume that the carefully fitted boards above the rafters on old houses or barns are merely old roof boards when, in fact, they once were the roof itself. For the same reason, references to plank roofs in early housing contracts and other documents have been overlooked or misunderstood.

Plank roofs once were common enough. In upstate New York, plank roofs were still applied to structures as late as the mid-eighteenth century. Peter Kalm, a traveling Swedish naturalist who recorded information about each area he visited, wrote about houses north of Albany that the "roof was either of boards or shingles. .. " (Kalm, Travels in North America, Vol. II, Dover, 1966, 612).

A properly beveled and fitted plank roof sheds water and snow efficiently and was as satisfactory as any other roof covering. If, after the passage of years, boards split or shrank, the plank roof made a solid base for wood shingles. While some plank roofs undoubtedly were intended as temporary expedients, others were installed with sufficient craftsmanship to survive as the sole roof covering for many years. One of the best examples survives on a mid-eighteenth century house near South Schodack, NY. (See illustrations.)

The plank roof was in use in the Albany area and in other settlement areas along the seacoast as long ago as the seventeenth century. Planks and boards were readily available at an early date, particularly in New Netherland, and were specified in building contracts in Beverwyck (Albany) and Manhattan documents by the 1640's. Numerous early saw mills in the Dutch colony processed abundant timber; consequently, sawn lumber was widely available during the long land-clearing phase of European settlement

Occasional wooden roofs appear in Netherlands paintings of the period, although many roofs in the homeland were thatched or tiled. All three materials, thatch, tile, and wood, were experimented with here during the first few years of Dutch settlement in New Netherland. At first, thatched roofs covered many area structures as they did on the continent However, the harsher climate and limited materials (straw was substituted for reeds) in New Netherland did not encourage the continued use of thatch. In addition, thatched roofs were recognized as fire hazards, especially in cities.

To substitute for thatch, a householder might choose pantiles, planks, or shingles. In America, as overseas, pantiles, while often the preferred roofing, proved, I believe, more expensive than other coverings. Moreover, loads of tiles were probably difficult to transport due to weight and fragility. Consequently, tiles emerged as a prestigious roofing limited, in the main, to public buildings and city residences of substance. White pine or cedar shingles were known to the Dutch and their English successors, but, as a product of intensive hand labor, they also were expensive. It is my opinion that shingles were not used very widely here in the seventeenth century because mention of shingles is rare in early Hudson Valley building contracts.

Therefore, for utility buildings such as barns, and for housing stock when pantiles could not be obtained, planks were a popular and culturally acceptable roofing material, one already familiar to the Dutch community. In addition, from earliest settlement through the eighteenth century, the abundant sawn materials were reasonably cheap.

<-Although now covered, the plank roof on this Dutch-style house near South Schodack, NY remains visible in the attic of the addition shown at left. Photo, spring, 1988, by Shirley Dunn.

A plank roof had one more attribute besides availability, cultural acceptance and economy. Planks on a roof made a building relatively fire-safe. This attribute of plank roofs was part of the public's consciousness for many years.

In February, 1656, an impoverished old man, Willem Juriensz, was unable to remove his dangerous thatched roof in the village of Beverwyck. His neighbors were called on to make a contribution to replace Juriensz' condemned "straw" roof, with one of planks, "in order, thereby, as far as possible, to prevent all danger of fire." A variety of individuals contributed for the new roof according to their concern and ability - Sander Leendertze, 12 planks and eight guilders' worth of nails; Rutger Jacobs, 5 planks; Andries Herpertz, 8 planks - and so on, making clear the character of the new and safer plank roof (Minutes of the Court of Fort Orange and Beverwyck, Vol. I, p. 238, 255). [Note: the Dutch word "planken" was verified courtesy of Charles Gehring, translator for the New Netherland Project]

The feeling that planks were a relatively safe roof may have contributed to their continued use for houses and barns long into the eighteenth century, even when pine shingles were readily available. For example, in the 1740's, when an outbreak of the French and Indian wars threatened, an Albany blockhouse, an important link in the stockade around the city, was ordered to be covered with boards, probably as a protection against flaming brands. The City Records record the following:

October 26, 1743. This board agreed with Anthony Bratt to remove the block house near the City Hall to the place where the powder house stands upon the plain, and to putt it up there, to find all the materials necessary, to mason the stone of the foundation above ground with lime, to put a new roof of squared pine boards thereon, to mason the pipe of the chimney above the house with lime, and to make draws before the portholes below, and to finish all compleat ... (Munsell, Annals of Albany, Vol. X, Albany, 1859, 114.)

Plank roofs were not unique to the Albany area. Seventeenth:century records from Manhattan mention plank and, occasionally, clapboard roofs. In 1642, a house built by Thomas Chambers was to be enclosed all around and covered overhead with clappoards "tight against the rain." (New York. Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, Vol. II, 13-14). Near Manhattan in 1649, Symon Root and Renier Somenson agreed to build two identical houses on which the roof frame was to be covered with planks (New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, Vol. III, 103). Further up the river, in June 1676, Claes Jansen agreed to build a house for Dirck Benson at Claverack (present Columbia County, NY), for which the contractor was to met plancken bequaem decken, "suitably cover the roof of the house with planks" (Early Records of Albany, Notarial Papers 1660-1696, 346). Earlier in 1676, the same Claes Jansen had contracted to erect a house, probably at Albany, with a roof of "overlapping planks" for Hans Hendricksen. This reference is important because it gives a clue to the method of application of the planks (Early Records of Albany 1660-1696, 471). [Again, Charles Gehring, of the New Netherland Project, has verified that the Dutch word "planken" appears in the originals.]

Plank or clapboard roofs were not limited to the Dutch of New Netherland and could take more than one form. For example, the mid-seventeenth century Adam Thoroughgood House in Virginia Beach, Virginia, retains sections of an early clapboard roof under later roofing. The early roof consisted of horizontal overlapping oak clapboards about 56 inches long and six inches deep. Both ends of each clapboard were feathered and they were nailed with two nails at the overlap of the feathered ends, while one nail secured the clapboard at midpoint. All nailing occurred on roof rafters. The extant Brush-Everard House at Williamsburg, Virginia, retains similar roofing from the eighteenth century, featuring somewhat longer boards.

<-Part of the original plank roof, preserved when an addition was put on the house shown on page three. No shingles were ever nailed over these fitted boards.

However, surviving Dutch plank roofs are different from the clapboard roofs of Virginia. Existing roofs in Schenectady and Schodack contain wide milled planks laid horizontally in uniform lengths up to ten or eleven feet. These planks met and were nailed at a seam over a central roof rafter. The seam and the plank ends probably were covered by a narrow strip of wood. The lengthwise edges of the planks were beveled to provide a water-resistant lap over the plank below. There were no gaps in the original tightly fitted installation. A common phrase in New Netherland building contracts is "roof and floor tight," referring to the fitting together of boards or planks. In contrast, common roof sheathing intended to support wood shingles consisted of irregular boards which provided gaps and openings.

Although the custom of roofing houses and barns, including some Dutch barns, with horizontal fitted planks continued well into the

eighteenth century, the practice in the upper Hudson area seems to end after the coming of many New Englanders to the Albany area in the decades after the end of the French and Indian wars. While there was less timber in established settlement areas by then, probably the main reason the roofs went out of fashion before 1800 was a social one - their association with the perceived "old-fashioned" and "inconvenient" Dutch way of life.

Casual use of boards on roofs of outbuildings probably knows no time limits. However, carefully crafted plank roofs with a beveled overlap can be an indicator that a structure predates the end of the eighteenth century and probably predates the Revolution. The wooden roof was a familiar sight in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its utilitarian practicality featuring a material widely available, fire resistant, and relatively inexpensive, as well as its cultural acceptability, led to its use on a variety of buildings in the country and also in the city.

Such roofs when discovered on a Dutch barn or old house should be preserved as part of the craftsmanship and uniqueness of the building's architecture. These unusual roofs serve, as well, as important historical evidence of the, origins and evolution of the conservative social environment which characterized areas of North European settlement, the very areas where Dutch barns are found.

The author, a Trustee and former president of the Dutch Barn Preservation Society, is Editor of the Newsletter.


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