Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lessons a House can Teach

This blog isn't devoted to home renovation. But, lately I've spent about a month painting my little Folk Victorian house and have been amazed at what I've learned about my home in the process. Even for a person who makes her living evaluating old buildings, there were lots of clues I missed in reading my own home. So this particular post is about my little house and the changes made to it that I've figured out either quickly or slowly while living here.

My house is in Fountain Square in a neighborhood severed by the construction of I-65/I-70 in the 1960s. My neighborhood has homes constructed from about 1860 to about 1960. My house is one of the older ones, with a construction date I estimate around 1895. The Folk Victorian style (a sort-of poor man's Queen Anne)was popular around that time and I know by looking at old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of my neighborhood that my house wasn't here in 1887 and was here in 1898, so the approximate date I'd guessed fits the evidence I can find. (Love it when that happens.)

I chose my new paint color because I found this periwinkle color under several layers of pale blue, yellow and white paint on the house. I matched a chip of that old paint with my new paint. Green trim also showed up under the old paint though not exactly this shade of green. Next year I will add a magenta shade to the window sashes and mullions--she will be a real Victorian painted lady.

My house was originally a twin, but is no longer an identical twin, to the house next door. Sometime around 1915 or so one of the owners of my house "modernnized" it with a Craftsman-style brick porch that wraps around two sides of house. In the process the owners removed the original, small porch that once decorated a portion of the northwest facade with turned posts and a spindled frieze board. As a preservationist I seriously covet my neighbor's still-intact fancier porch, but I have to admit that my big shaded porch is one of the best things about living in this house. It's always breezy and pleasant there no matter how hot the summer days become.

At the same time the porch was added my house also got a rear addition, a 10' x 11' room that was built over the old cistern (which is now exposed under that room's floor in the basement). The rusticated concrete block foundation on the addition matches the foundation on the porch (the rest of the house is built on a brick foundation), indicating the two additions were made at the same time. The rear addition has a hipped roof, popular in the Arts and Crafts period when the bungalow was king, further supporting the idea that it dates to about 1915.

Probably at the same time the owners changed up the porch and added the rear room, they also installed some new windows. The facade and some of the northwest side windows of my house are classic bungalow style: wooden, double-hung sashes with three panes on the top and one pane on the bottom. They are also grouped in an Arts- and-Crafts period ribbon placement in a group of three contiguous windows in a row. Each group of three ribbon windows replaced two separate double-hung windows (judging from the sister house next door). What I also learned while painting was that even one of my remaining pairs of original double-hung windows was also altered at the time the new windows were installed. Although they remain in their original configuration of separate one-over-one windows, at least one set was replaced with shorter windows, evidenced by the replaced clapboard siding covering the original openings and a new sill, much smaller than the two original sills still in existance on the other side of the house.

At some much later point, maybe in the 1990s, someone got the bright idea to replace some more windows on the house. I actually believe that "someone" was SEND. Their classic move to pull out original wooden-sash windows and install vinyl was repeated all across my neighborhood, including in my house. So, three of my windows have been replaced at least twice. At least these newest (and no more efficient) windows are at the rear of my house and not very noticeable to a casual observer.

One other thing I learned about my house while painting is that my old steel gutters were mounted on the roof because there isn't enough space between my house and the house next door to allow for gutters to hang below the eaves. I count my old roof-mounted gutters as an asset because they didn't require ugly gutter boards around the roof edge and that means that my exposed rafter tails are all still intact and not cut off like many in my neighborhood. I think my house may not have had any gutters originally. There's no evidence of any other place where they would have been attached. My existing gutters, like my windows and porch, probably date to the Arts and Crafts period around 1915 or so. They are a typical style from that period.

Finally, one thing I had never noticed until I began to hit it while scraping the clapboard was that my house had hardware above the windows that must have held awnings of some sort. The awnings---I'm imagining Cool Vent aluminum slats from the 1940s or so---are long gone. Now, so is most of that leftover hardware, which I removed. The imprints on the wood from the hardware are still visible though, leaving a hint of the past for the next owners to ponder.


  1. You rock! If those walls could talk, they'd agree with me. Love reading you.



  2. Thanks, Baz! Means a lot coming from you.