The Gablefront House

The predominant housing style throughout the Gallows Hill neighborhood is the Gablefront. There are hundreds of them, distributed on nearly every street in the neighborhood. The Gablefront is as canonical to Gallows Hill as Federal style is to the McIntire District neighborhood or raised ranch to the Witchcraft Heights subdivision.

A Gablefront house is exactly as the name states, the central feature a high-pitched gable roof facing the street. There are two basic varieties, the 2½ story (two full floors plus attic) house and the 1½ story cottage. The 2½ story renders itself amenable to both two-family and single family format, though most in Gallows Hill are single-family.

28 Butler St

A lovely Gablefront cottage, the ell in the rear a 20th-century addition

The gablefront end is so narrow, only two bays wide typically, as to leave no room for a front entry. Accordingly and almost without exception the main entry is tucked away to the side, the few exceptions with the door on the Gablefront looking tight and cramped.

12-22 Varney St

A row of Gablefronts along Varney St

Occasionally the Gablefront is turned, with the long end facing the street and the gable end to the side (Gableside house?). The entryway then is central and faces the street. Lots in the 19th century were generally laid out deep and narrow, so only the rare lot could handle the side gable alignment.

The gable facade is simple and unadorned, no lintels or any other decorative millwork over the windows, no pediments or columns or pilasters about the entryway, as is so common to predecessor architectural styles such as Federal or Greek Revival. A pediment does not frame the gable roof. Often there is no roof overhang either, the molding tight up against the roof edge. Even if the eaves overhang the extension is slight.

14-16 Nichols St

Two similar Gablefront houses, the farther single-family with eave overhang and shutters, the nearer two-family without either

Built from the mid-19th century to early 20th century throughout the Northeast, the Gablefront is a Vernacular style unique to the United States.

[Vernacular is] a building designed by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable. The function of the building would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal.  — Ronald Brunskill

Gablefront homes were built to house the burgeoning worker class of the American industrial age. As such their prevalence in mid-19th century Gallows Hill coincides with the mid-19th century growth of the leather industry in Blubber Hollow at the foot of Gallows Hill.

Gablefronts were not the residences of the recent immigrants toiling in tanneries, who lived instead in cramped tenements in The Point and Derby Street neighborhoods along Salem harbor. Instead, Gablefronts on Gallows Hill were built for foremen and managers and accountants and such in Salem industries, and represent what would be labeled today middle-income workforce housing.

Still these were not wealthy residents, which goes a ways to justify the excessive simplicity of the Gablefront house in Gallows Hill, in contrast to the elaborate, occasionally excessively elaborate, homes in the McIntire District or in the neighborhood around the Salem Common. There are a handful of timid and unassuming Gablefront homes mingled into these wealthy districts, out of place beside their grandiose neighbors.

Though the Gablefront is humble nearly every one is unique; there were few exact duplicates. Standard plans were available to 19th-century contractors but custom construction was the order of the times. Nothing was built in large quantities on spec. In part this was due to the ragged financial opportunities of the time. Mortgages bore no resemblance to the standard 30-year 10% down plans of today. Such house loans as could be obtained were for at most six years often with 50% down. For a contractor to get a loan to build more than one house at a time was all but unheard of.

The simplicity of the Gablefront rendered it amenable to additions and alterations. The tall attic space finished with dormers, porticoes embellished the main entryway, bay windows replaced flat windows, porches sprang out the side or front, ells pushed out the side or back, shutters added about windows, sidelight extensions placed on doors. In the almost two centuries since Gablefront homes starting dotting the slopes of Gallows Hill nearly every one has been altered. An original Gablefront in pristine condition is about as rare as an original Levittown Cape Cod house, the predominant house style of the 20th century whose sheer simplicity, like the Gablefront, also rendered it amenable to additions and alterations.

Note on orthography of Gablefront

The term is variously punctuated and capitalized: Gable-front, gable-front, Gable Front, gable front, Gablefront, gablefront, even GableFront. After much hewing back and forth this blog is settling upon Gablefront. Single word title case bestows a deserved dignity upon the humble ubiquitous style.


2 thoughts on “The Gablefront House

  1. Pingback: Evolution of the Gablefront House | Streets of Gallows Hill

  2. Pingback: Construction in Blubber Hollow. May Update | Streets of Gallows Hill

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