Old Frame Houses
Curb-Roofed and Salt-Box Tenements
Quaint Homes of 1800
Regulations Pertaining to Building of Wooden Structures
Half of The Homes In 1822
First Limitation of Height of All Edifices
Advent of the Shed-Roof Buildings

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, July 25, 1909 [p. 6]

In the early part of the last century there were in this city a number of frame dwelling houses of a type now obsolete, and today few, if any, are standing. These were quaint little structures, erected prior to 1822, when the building regulations restricted the height of frame houses to but twelve feet to the eaves and the area to 320 square feet. Consequently, those unable to build a brick or stone edifice, of which forty feet was the limit in height of the walls, erected small frames. Some were arranged for but two rooms and kitchen on the ground floor and a half story above.

But the curb-roof plan was adopted, by which a full story was gained at minimum cost, more shingles than lumber being required. With the upper story lighted by dormer windows facing the street and a massive chimney at each end, often outside the house, often small, a comfortable as well as economical home was many times secured.

Buildings of this character were not contemplated as permanent ones prior to 1790, the original intention being that brick or stone houses alone should be erected. Frame houses, for lodging workmen and storing materials, could be erected with the approval of the Commissioners, who had power to remove or discontinue them.

Washington Issues Regulation
Washington, October 17, 1791, by regulation No. 1, directed that the outer and party walls should be of brick or stone, and limited the height to forty feet, etc. By regulation No. 3 issued by the Commissioners July 2?, 1795, the thickness of walls was fixed at from nine to twenty-four inches and penalties were imposed. June 25, 1796, Washington issued regulation No. 5, reciting, that, as it had been found by experience that the article in the first regulation as to character of the building "impedes the settlement in the city of mechanics, and others, whose circumstances do not admit of erecting houses of the description authorized by the said regulations." The said articles be suspended until the first Monday in December, 1800, and all houses erected prior to that date conformable in other respects be lawful; "except that no wooden house covering more than 520 square feet, or more than twelve feet in height, from sill to the eaves, shall be erected; nor shall any such house be placed within twenty-four feet of a brick or stone house."

Many Built After 1796
From this time, 1796, to the twenties, when the regulation of building was vested in the corporation, subject to approval by the President, many frame houses of the curb-roof style were erected, and more numerous were they than the more substantial bricks. In 1822 in a total of about 2,500 buildings, about 1,300 were frames. These were mostly erected for homes by their owners, often on capacious lots or surrounded by open unimproved ground. Many of them were picturesque, and especially did they attract the attention of visitors.

Often placed well back from the building line, in the midst of an old-fashioned garden, such houses were in keeping with the adjacent rural conditions, and a few of them were standing up to the time of the civil war. Very many made way for the more modern improvements. One stood once on the square now occupied by the Post Office Department.

At the close of 1800 there were but 600 dwellings in the city, of which over 400 were of frame, nearly 200 having been built in that year.

President Monroe's Action
President Monroe in 1818 made some slight change and renewed the suspension for two years. The city charter of 1820 having given power to the corporation, with the approval of the President, to regulate buildings, and ordinance was passed in May 1822, amending the regulations by limiting the height of frame buildings to twenty feet to top of roof, declaring that houses whose walls were other than stone or brick should be deemed frame, and imposing a fine of $5 for every week any unlawful house was allowed to remaining and for printing copies of the act, etc.

July 15, 1822, Mr. Monroe approved an ordinance imposing a penalty of $20 for placing a wooden house within twenty-four feet of a brick or stone house, and $5 per week while it remained and prohibited a blacksmith shop, factory or livery stable being located within fifty feet of such house. The change in the height allowed to name houses was welcomed and the effect was seen in every part of the city by the salt box or shed-roof houses superseding the old-style curb roof. Many built in this style as a back building, setting far enough back from the building line to allow the erection of a more pretentious house in the future, while others made one lot of finishing man and back buildings.

Arrangements of Buildings
These were on the same general plan, the front building two rooms deep, with hall, stairway and hallroom for a majority of both brick and frame dwellings erected down to 18?0. About this period a few four-storied bricks and three-storied frames had been erected , and of the six thousand or more dwellings, two-thirds were of frame.

The little curb-roofed frames, as above noted, have entirely disappeared. Some of the salt-box style remain, a few not connected with larger residences, and the day has passed for the erection of any style of frame dwellings in Washington.

Though these primitive homes of many of the old Washington families have been relegated to the past in the magnificent progress made by the city, many descendants have warm spots in their memories for anything pertaining to the old homes of their sires, though they were of the quaint curb-roofed or the plain salt-box design.