At more than 350 years old, the James Blake House in Dorchester is the oldest home in Boston.

Credit: Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News

What's It Like To Live In Boston's Oldest Home?

September 13, 2017

Set back from Columbia Road in Dorchester, on a small plot of grass in the heart of a bustling neighborhood just outside Edward Everett Square, is one of those old buildings you tend to see around here. It's not unremarkable, but it's not particularly attention-grabbing, either. But this simple, two-story structure, called the James Blake House, is special. It's the single oldest home in the entire city — built in 1661 when Boston was a village of just 3,000 people. But the coolest thing? Somebody lives here.

For three years now, Barbara Kurze has been a live-in caretaker for this historic home. It was purchased by the city in 1891, then saved from demolition by the Dorchester Historical Society, which bought it a few years later and moved it about 400 yards from its original location.

"This is, like, a really cool place — just the history," Kurze told me during a recent visit to Blake House, when I asked her why she decided to become a caretaker here. "I’m not sure I really thought through the move and the living here. That came after the fact."

But live here she does, as caretakers have at the Blake House since the 1910s.

I sat and chatted with Kurze about life in Boston's oldest home in the house’s front room, today called the museum room. Here, there are displays with info about the original owners — England’s James and Elizabeth Blake — and a scale model of the building, one of only a few examples of a post-Medieval timber frame-style house in the country. 

"The amount of handcrafting that went into this house, it was all done by hand," said Kurze. "Some of it took a while, and that was OK. People were willing to wait."

Rounding out the room are a variety of items, not original to the house, but meant to evoke the ambiance of its earliest years — including a conspicuously placed musket that caught my eye.

"Yes, it’s a real musket," said Kurze. "I’m pretty sure it does not work."

What is original is the very essence of the building. The walls have recently undergone extensive analysis and — to everyone’s surprise — only needed the most minor of repairs.

"Most of the 1661 plaster is still with us — the original lath and plaster [which was] a mixture of mud, clay, dried plant matter. Apparently, they burned animal bones to strengthen it," Kurze said. "Even better news: The plaster structure is super, super sound."

And then there are building's venerable bones: Dozens of handsome, sturdy exposed timber beams that have survived more than 350 years.

"When these trees came down, they did analysis, and so we know they were at least 400 years old," said Kurze. 

That's 400 years old in the 1600s. That means the trees used to build this house were growing strong in the area in the 1200s. You know, when Genghis Khan was expanding his Mongol Empire and St. Francis was establishing an Order of Friars near Assisi. 

It’s under these august beams that Kurze lives her day-to-day. When at home, her duties are simply to keep an eye on things, watching for signs of damage or emerging issues.

Aside from the museum room, the place is her home: A curious mix of the modern and the post-medieval. There are current-day creature comforts, like electricity and indoor plumbing. 

"It does seem kind of odd sometimes, and then we have this modern stuff here," remarked Kurze as she showed me her 21st century refrigerator in her 17th century kitchen.

But there are also plenty of quirks. The ceilings are notably low. Kurze can't hang pictures or shelves on the historic walls, she can’t burn candles, and there are no closets. And while there is oil heat for the winter, in the summer, she cools the place just like the Blakes would have.

"If you are one of the caretakers here ... you will never get to have air conditioning," Kurze told me as she threw open a leaded glass, diamond-shaped pane window for some ventilation. "There is no way you are ever going to get an air conditioning unit in this window.

Kurze says she adjusted to her semi-homestead life here pretty quickly. But one thing she never gets used to? Surprise visitors. Despite the fact that she comes and goes, takes out the trash regularly, and the lights are often on at night, plenty assume the place is empty.

"It’s not infrequently that you’ll be looking out a window and somebody is staring back at you," said Kurze, laughing. 

Still, despite the unique challenges of life as a caretaker of a 350-year-old house, or maybe because of them, Kurze is happy here and proud to call Boston’s oldest home her home.

"It does feel sort of special and I do feel good about looking after the house," she said. "It may not look much, but just the fact that it survived this long and you can still visit it, that’s really cool."

The James Blake House is located at 735 Columbia Rd. in Dorchester. Kurze leads a tour every third Sunday of the month, if you want to get a look inside. I’m always looking for story ideas, so tell me what you’ve been curious about lately! Email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org


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