BUYING A STONE HOUSE: Deciphering the clues

Stone houses have a particular attraction to the buyer looking for a unique property. First of all, they aren’t built anymore! Secondly, they feel like a tangible link to our past. America is a young country, and stone houses built before the Revolution are rare, indeed. When I was a new agent a homeowner stumped me with his label “vernacular”, but I soon came to understand these houses were domestic examples of the everyman’s home—what would be most commonly found in the region. These days, for the most part, the original section of the house will be small and quaint, and additions have been added over the years—some made of stone, some from different materials, often clapboard.

How to identify a stone house? The exposed stones are the easy part—sometimes. Modern cultured stone can sometimes deceive at first glance; this is a concrete product cast and colored to look like stone. It will usually be found on development homes, but not always! If a house is covered in plaster, it’s still probably a stone house. The 20th century preference has been to remove the plaster and expose the stone. But in the period, that was considered rubble and unsightly. The plaster served to dress up the house; it also provided protection against the elements. Only houses with “dressed” stones—in other words, cut square—were left unplastered. These belonged to the very wealthy. Occasionally you will see a plastered house that is not stone but this is pretty rare. Sometimes they plastered brick. Or, if you remember the Tudor half-timbered houses, American colonists built a few and covered them with plaster on the outside. The best way to tell if the house is stone is to look at the windows on the inside. A stone house will have deep window sills—probably around 18″.

The oldest stone farmhouses are pretty reliably identified from the main (or keeping) room—if they haven’t been altered over the years. This room would have been their living space and kitchen all thrown into one; it’s where the term keeping house came from. The oldest homes have a walk-in fireplace, or at least a fireplace taking up much of one wall. On one side of the fireplace you will usually see a winding staircase—also called boxed stairs, or even pie stairs, as we refer to them in Bucks County. One set goes up; next to it, behind a door, the other set goes down to the cellar. The winding stairs will continue from the second floor into the attic—which will usually have the oldest and widest floor boards in the house. Straight staircases tend to be later—after 1850—or part of a grander, estate home.

The keeping room fireplace may originally have been on the exterior wall; an addition was often built on the other side of it. Again, the way to tell is look at the depth of the interior doorway; if 18″ wide or so, you’re walking through an original exterior door. From the outside you will see a long stone house with a chimney in the middle (and probably a second one at the end). That middle chimney is a give-away that there was an addition put on. Also, you can usually spot a vertical line in the stonework where the original corner once stood; there’s a good chance the stones are patterned differently on each section, having been laid by another mason.

Some stone houses have two front doors. No, you are not looking at a duplex. One of the front doors led to the parlor, which was kept pristine and rarely used except for special occasions. The other door would open to the keeping room, where the family cooked, ate, and generally lived (with the big fireplace). Upstairs, you will usually pass through a little “hall” room (from which you can go to the attic) leading to two very small bedrooms.

A larger stone house might have had a summer kitchen, either attached to the building or standing alone. It, too would have a large fireplace. Now you’re getting higher on the social ladder, so to speak. Occasionally, I’ve seen a large fireplace in a walk-out basement, which I assume served the same purpose as an outside kitchen—in other words, keep the heat out of the house.

Another way to guess at the age of the house is to look at the joists in the basement. The oldest homes have flattened logs for floor joists; some even have the bark still attached. They are usually spaced farther apart than we are used to today, but don’t worry; remember they are first growth logs and incredibly strong. Later on they would shape square joists with an adze; you can still see the marks in the wood where they are cut by hand. Milled joists indicate mid-19th century or later, as a broad generalization.

You might have a dirt floor in the basement; concrete floors are a later improvement. You will see a huge foundation for the fireplace; this is not a separate fireplace but rather a “footer”, just like you’d need today. Also don’t be surprised if one of the chimneys in the house is dedicated to the furnace; central heating came much later and this is one way they adapted, making the fireplace attached to that chimney unusable.

Exposed ceiling rafters are also a delight to the modern eye. If you take a closer look, you might see a bunch of holes in the rafters; this is where a solid ceiling has been removed at some point in the past. Also you might be looking directly up at the floor boards from the second story. Take a look at the “beading”, or decorative edge on the flooring, if you are lucky enough to see it. One plank will be beaded on both edges then nailed next to a plain board, to look like there’s a bead at each seam. Since there was no tongue-and-groove in the early days, you might see light between the edges of really old floorboards. This is not a bad thing! It certainly does not mean the floors are falling apart; they are to be treasured. Generally, the wider the floorboards, the older they are. 

Once you develop an eye for stone house characteristics, you find yourself looking for clues every time you walk into one. They are not always easy to spot, but every old house has secrets just waiting to be discovered.  

Bucks County Stone Houses

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that people think of stone houses when they think of Bucks County—although there are numerous examples in Hunterdon County NJ as well. Since major roads from Philadelphia to New York passed through this region, there was a considerable population that settled here. They used building materials most readily at hand, the commonest—and probably the most attractive—being the soft grey limestone. Sometimes this stone is a solid grey, occasionally almost blue, and often there are traces of yellow—ranging from the palest fawn to coppery orange. Often several of these colors appear in the stone of one house; almost always it is a stone glowing with color.

The earliest settlers tended to build their first houses from native timber. These old log structures went up quickly, with squared timbers and notched corners. The chinks—or gaps between the logs—were filled with sticks, horsehair, mud and straw. After a while, concentration could be on more permanent structures. Many of these original log structures have a stone addition. The stone would have come second, after the homeowner had a roof over his head. 

Doylestown Mercer Museum. Courtesy Deposit Photos

Most stone houses can be dated to the 18th-19th centuries. The older stone houses, simple, solid, and sturdy, fit into the landscape so well they seem as much a part of the countryside as the fields and trees. They look as though they have grown out of the very soil—and they have, for the stones were usually taken directly from the surrounding fields: hence fieldstone. Stone houses were rarely built after 1880 in this region, when easier methods of construction came into common use.

The 21st century buyer is enamored by the look of exposed fieldstone, but the traditional stone house was often covered with a coat of stucco, or plaster to conform with the fashion of the day. The purpose of plastering was threefold: first, it provided a waterproof protection against the elements; secondly, it helped with insulation; thirdly, it dressed up the structure. Houses built with square cut stone were often left unplastered, but this was for the very rich. If you are looking at a plaster house, it is probably stone underneath. The best way to tell is check out the window on the inside. Your stone house will have very deep windowsills: 18 inches or more.

Many of the stone houses in the area were originally small, two story farmhouses with two rooms on the main floor and two rooms on the upper floor, with a pie-shaped or winding staircase in the corner. Additions were completed over the generations, which would explain an extra-thick interior wall (originally an exterior wall). Many of these houses have two front doors. One of the front doors led to the parlor, which was kept pristine and rarely used except for special occasions. The other door would lead to the keeping room, where the family cooked, ate, and generally lived.

Southeastern Pennsylvania, with its original Colonial residents, is the only part of the United States that has an abundance of houses built from stone. These homes are a great part of our heritage in the Delaware River Valley, and people who live in them tend to view themselves as caretakers of historic treasures.


I get asked this question all the time. The quick and easy answer is: They Didn’t. They built the road next to the house. Of course, if you operated a stagecoach stop, that might be an exception. But that was later. When most of Bucks County stone houses were built, there were no roads—unless you were in or near a major city.

We all take roads for granted. But in the early days, before the English settled here, roads were just not necessary. For the most part, people used Indian paths or bridle paths. There were no coaches, nor wheeled carriages. The Dutch, Swedes and Finns relied on the Delaware to move goods about, but by 1681 William Penn received his land grant and immediately started selling parcels to his English friends—mostly Quakers. In his original survey William Penn projected a series of roads through Bucks, but the settlers got there first and built fences, encroaching upon the proposed roads. His concept was soon abandoned. Whatever roads were built (by locals) tended to follow property lines and formed a crooked network across the county that made it very difficult for farmers to take their produce to Philadelphia.

Roads were not what we usually picture. To build a road, trees were cut down to clear a path, but the stumps were not removed, nor were large boulders. It was intended that the stumps would be cut low enough so that wagon axles could pass over them, which helps explains why the vehicles rode so high. But in the rainy seasons, the roads were nearly impassable.

A covered wagon getting stuck in the mud. Att. to Alexandre Josquin

Anyway, back to building the road next to the house: the process of planning an official road took many steps. The neighbors had to get together and petition the Governor (they were all Colonials back then!). Then they would make a survey. Here’s a petition from 1711: To begin at the side of the river Delaware opposite to John Reading’s landing (Center Bridge) from thence the most direct and convenient course to Buckingham Meeting house & from thence the most direct and convenient course through the land of Thomas Watson on the north side, And from thence the most direct and convenient course to Stephen Jenkins on the west side of his house, and from thence the most direct and convenient course to the house of Richard Walin…  (This is taken from “A collection of Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society”, 1909). So you get the idea. As it turned out, John Reading died a few years later and his section of the road fell into disuse. Another petition was sent, requesting that the road be moved to Wells Ferry downstream at New Hope, because it was “a great charge for the Township to maintain two roads for one use within 3 miles one of another”.  Imagine that!

As the population grew, something had to be done to accommodate wheeled traffic. So the Pennsylvanians followed the English tradition that went back to the reign of Edward III. They instituted toll roads. The very first hard surfaced road in America was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. This was an ambitious project, finished in 1795, made from Macadam (invented by a Scot of that name) which consisted of layers of progressively finer stones—broken with a hand hammer—and spread over a finished soil surface, a shovel at a time. The weight of the traffic would compact the irregular stones into a solid surface. The only problem was that the Commonwealth could not afford such a project, so it was determined to incorporate companies that would sell shares and in turn, tolls would be collected to pay the stockholders back. To this end, tollhouses were built along the way and toll keepers were paid a salary—and given free board—to collect the fees. This practice was followed throughout Pennsylvania, and many toll roads—some only five or six miles long—served to connect communities together.  

TOLL HOUSE AND SINGLE TOLL GATE Showing “guard rail” on the right at Aquetong, formerly Paxson’s Corner, on the Old York Road (Lahaska and New Hope Turnpike) looking south.

To keep it in perspective, the Lahaska to New Hope turnpike was 4 ¾ miles long. The company sold 500 shares of stock for $25 per share, making the initial capital $12,500. It cost them $16,255 to build the road. (This is when the average laborer earned $6 per week.) Apparently the toll was somewhere between a nickel and 25¢. From 1855-1865 the average annual income from tolls was $1300 and the average expense for upkeep $944. It took a long time for the investors to make their money back (if at all).

Why were they called Turnpikes? This was named after the gate that was built to stretch across the road. A long pole—or pike, as in weapon of war—was attached to a vertical post, and it would be turned by the attendant to give access to the traveler. Needless to say, there are many stories about people trying to avoid paying tolls, and I suspect the toll keeper must have been a tough fellow to put up with the troublemakers.

The so-called age of the turnpike lasted from about 1810 to 1860, but the railroads pretty much took over for transporting goods across the country. It wasn’t until the car came along that roads recovered their importance. Here are some interesting statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau webpage:

When Henry Ford introduced the Model T in October 1908, 93 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million miles of public roads were dirt. Even though 7 percent of the nation’s public roads were paved, driving in the rain generally carried a 100 percent chance of getting stuck!

In 1928, 25 percent of the nation’s 3.3 million miles of roads were paved. Today, nearly 4.1 million miles of road criss-cross the United States, of which approximately 65 percent are paved.

Car stuck in mud – National Park Service

Only 65%! That’s amazing. I found a website that tells us when some of the major roads were paved:  For instance, Street Road at Mechanicsville (Reinforced Concrete) 1965; Bridge Street New Hope (compacted concrete) 1939; Aquetong (Reinforced concrete) 1965; Mechanicsville (Crushed Stone) 1932; Headquarters Road (Crushed Stone) 1948. All this time, having a stone house on the road must not have been a big deal! No one is going to be barreling down these roads at 60 MPH. So I would say that the inconvenience we suffer today is of short duration, when you take into consideration the whole history of the stone house itself.

Plaster or Exposed Stone?

I remember a buyer once who was annoyed with me because she wanted a stone house and I sent her a plaster house. At first I was confounded, only to realize she didn’t recognize the white house as stone. And equally to the point, it seems that for many people who do recognize the plastered house as stone, it still seems like a lesser stone house if the stones are not exposed. In reality, this is a 20th century phenomenon; exposing the stone walls is beautiful to our eyes, but in the period, it would have been considered unsightly rubble. Plastered stone houses are “period”, unless the stones were hand cut (or shaped, or dressed). Then they were meant to be seen. Only the wealthiest could afford this; you’ll find dressed stones most often on estate houses, or commercial buildings. For the rest of us, plaster beautified the house.

But that’s not all. Early lime mortar was softer than the material used after the 1940s; hence, exposure to the elements took its toll. Covering the walls with plaster then a coat of whitewash gave the mortar protection for decades longer. However, there’s no doubt that exposing the stone gives us a much better vision of how the material was stacked.

Bucks and Hunterdon topography is full of stones, which I’m sure was a great headache for farmers. Dry-stacked stone walls divided their fields, and material to build houses was more than ample. When you look at a corner of a stone house, you will see alternating long and short squared-off rocks whose purpose is to give structure and support to the rubble. These are called quoines (pronounced “coins”) and you’ll always see them. If they are in the middle of a wall, that’s a giveaway that a later addition had been put onto the house. As for the rest, the fieldstone was fitted together into something resembling courses, with the soft mortar filling in the joints.

When you remove the plaster from the walls, the mortar is in terrible shape and needs to be repointed. This is a big and arduous job. Here is a picture of a wall halfway done:

You can see how smooth the joints are on the right (it’s actually a chimney). On the left of the window, not only is it hard to look at, it’s not weatherproof, either. So this is a job not to be taken on without due preparation!